Red alert: Genome editing on human embryos

On February 1, 2016, the British authorities for human reproduction and embryology, the HFEA, gave authorization to a research team to genetically modify human embryos for research purposes for the first time in the UK. This authorization involves using the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, which can specifically target genes in DNA. This is one of the very first authorizations of this type for genetic editing on human embryos.

The request was submitted last September 18. Kathy Niakan, who heads this research project, works on early embryonic development. She plans to study the genes involved during cell development which will then form the placenta, to try to determine why certain women have miscarriages.

Genetic editing of embryos for treatment purposes is forbidden in the United Kingdom. However, it has been authorized for research since 2009, provided the embryos are destroyed after a maximum of two weeks, and this condition remains valid for this unprecedented authorization.

The United Kingdom is taking giant leaps using these techniques, last year having been the first country to authorize conception of babies using 3 different DNA: the 3 Parents In-vitro Fertilization. To avoid transmission of genetic diseases by the biological mothers, the fertilization is combined with the enucleated egg cell from a donor which is re-injected with the genetic material from the mother.

Hugh Whittall, Director at Nuffield Council on Bioethics, reacted to this announcement by saying “ There are possible scenarios in which editing performed in a research context – for example to study genetic mutations causing an illness – might, if it becomes legally possible, be used in a treatment which would lead to the birth of a child(..)”.

To cite Tugdual Derville « This authorization is a typical example of the Trojan horse transgression: the perspective of a genetically modified human (GMH) is based on human embryo manipulation, which is edited, and then destroyed. It is treated as a guinea pig, justifying the sacrifice of its’ dignity by the quest for therapeutic advancement.”

But what will the next step be? Or the upcoming demands? Certainly, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique is promising: giving us glimpse of amazing progress in genetic therapy. But when the human embryo or human gametes are at stake, the ethical issues raised are crucial. More than just a principle of precaution, it is the necessary protection of all human being which should apply. This authorization shows that we are beyond the stage of alert. The era of designer babies and transmissible editing of the human genome might be there soon: the worldwide heritage of humanity which should be collectively protected is in danger.”