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British scientist can genetically modify human embryos, ethics committee says

by Lydia WillgressThe Telegraph [UK]
May 27th, 2016

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A British scientist will be able to genetically modify human embryos after being given the go ahead from an ethics committee.

Dr Kathy Niakan, of the Francis Crick Institute, will begin preparatory work on the programme following the decision by the Cambridge Central Research Ethics Committee.

The committee gave the green light to the scheme after it was approved by the fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), earlier this year.  

Dr Niakan will now be allowed to use a gene editing technique on surplus embryos that have been donated by consenting patients undergoing fertility treatment.

Despite the approval, the start of research may still be months away due to the difficulties of obtaining sufficient embryos.

The controversial project is thought to mark the second time the procedure will be undertaken. Scientists in China, who carried out the first experiment but are not believed to have been approved by a regulator, were met with widespread criticism.

Dr Niakan, speaking at a briefing in central London in January, said she hoped the research would give hope to prospective patients.

“We would really like to understand the genes that are needed for an embryo to develop into a healthy baby,” she said.

“Miscarriage and infertility are extremely common but they are not very well understood. We believe that this research could improve our understanding of the very earliest stages of human life.”

Around 50 per cent of eggs do not fertilise properly and scientists are keen to discover if a faulty genetic code is to blame.

Experts believe miscarriages could be prevented and fertility could be improved if they can work out which genes are needed for healthy cell division.

Dr Niakan added: “The reason why I think this is so important is that most human embryos fail to reach the blastocyst stage. Over 50 per cent will fail so this window is absolutely critical.

“If we were to understand the genes, it could really help us improve infertility treatment and provide crucial insights into the causes of miscarriage.”

The Health Research Authority, which is one of a number of bodies who are responsible for the regulation and governance of health research, confirmed they wrote to a research applicant at the institute to advise them they had met conditions at the beginning of May. 

A spokesman added: "The application was first reviewed at a meeting of the REC on 12 February and was given a favourable opinion with conditions relating to a small, specific change to wording in the patient information sheets provided to potential study participants."

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