In my last blog post, I detailed the legal battle currently taking place over the biggest scientific breakthrough of 2015, a controversial gene edited technology called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.) On February 1st, the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority (HFEA) announced that it has now approved biologist Kathy Niakan’s request to use CRISPR to alter DNA in a human embryo for the first time.
So far, CRISPR has been has been used to attempt to splice genes from cells and eliminate mutations responsible for sickle cell anemia and HIV. But this is the first time in the U.K.’s history that CRISPR will be allowed to be applied on germline cells in a live human embryo. The technology will help Niakan and her team of scientists from the Francis Crick Institute to attempt to cut out and replace parts of DNA that prevent an embryo from developing properly.
CRISPR has proven to be a cutting-edge technology that allows researchers to make impressively precise, targeted changes in DNA. Moreover, CRISPR’s process is so simple that many molecular biology labs and IVF clinics already have the right equipment to use the technology. But as beneficial and progressive as CRISPR may sound, some researchers fear the effects that the powerful technology will eventually have over the level of control we have on the human genome.
The biggest concern is that if CRISPR is able to permanently change genes in a human embryo, it also has the potential to forever alter the human gene pool, thus posing a threat to the diversity of our gene pool – something that is extremely important in order to keep a species healthy. If we begin to manipulate the pool, we will most likely face dire threats to our existence such as our ability to fight disease, life expectancy, etc.
Another controversial aspect of CRISPR is the fact that the technology is so precise that scientists worry about how far this kind of intervention can and should go. It’s one thing to use CRISPR to tackle disease and infertility, but another thing to employ CRISPR to design customized babies – a fine line that people are concerned would lead to scientists playing God.
In the case of Niakan, group leader at the Crick Institute Robin Lovell-Badge assures that her use of CRISPR will be exclusively geared towards answering questions about infertility. So far, researchers have a lot of information on how the early mouse embryo develops, specifically on how cell lineages promote the development of the embryo and the tissue that make up the placenta. But they don’t have that much information on how it happens in a human embryo. She will use CRISPR to snip each gene of interest and then study what happens to the embryos. If she’s able to track which types of cells continue to develop, she will be able to determine which genes are critical to specific tissues in the early embryo, thus getting one step closer in understanding and reducing infertility in women.
In places like the United States, federal laws prohibit the National Institutes of Health from funding human-embryo-based research that uses CRISPR, but studies on human embryos with private funding are left unregulated. However in the U.K., research conducted by both HFEA and private IVF clinics are strictly regulated by laws that would prohibit them from getting too carried away with the use of CRISPR. So even though some scientists may see the U.K.’s approval of the use of CRISPR on human embryos as a big mistake, the reality is that these studies are being conducted in a very controlled and safe way.
Even if Niakan’s study pans out as being successful, the embryos will be discarded after 14 days and more importantly it still remains completely illegal for any scientist to implant the altered embryos into a woman.