A leading expert on developmental genetics from the Francis Crick Institute has warned against calls for a moratorium on the genetic editing of human embryos.
Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, a Group Leader in Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Crick, was speaking following publication of world-first research by Chinese scientists who have genetically modified human embryos.
Using a procedure called Crispr/Cas9, the Chinese researchers modified a faulty gene that causes beta-thalassaemia, a life-threatening blood disorder.
The work was carried out in faulty IVF embryos obtained from local fertility clinics. These embryos would have been incapable of developing into healthy babies and would have been destroyed by the clinics.
Prof Lovell-Badge said: "The experiments reported by Junjiu Huang and colleagues (Liang et al) in the journal Protein Cell on gene editing in abnormally fertilised human embryos are, I expect, the first of several that we will see this year. The paper from this Chinese group is the first to ask if the methods work, and the answer provided is very equivocal. Yes, they do, but inefficiently and with several problems.
"There has been much excitement among scientists about the power of these new gene editing methods, and particularly about the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which is relatively simple to use and generally very efficient. The possibility of using such methods to genetically modify human embryos, and therefore humans, has been on the cards since these methods were first described, and recently these prospects have been brought to the attention of the public through several commentaries made by senior scientists and commentators, some of whom have called for a moratorium to halt any attempts."
Recently, with rumours about work of this type being done, and again following publication of the paper, some organisations have called for a moratorium on any similar work in the future. However, Prof Lovell-Badge warns against such an approach: "I disagree with a moratorium, which is in any case unlikely to work well. Indeed, I am fully supportive of research being carried out on early human embryos in vitro, especially on embryos that are not required for reproduction and would otherwise be discarded.
"If the techniques work, there are many interesting questions that could be asked about the role of specific genes in early human embryo development, especially as there is accumulating evidence that equivalent stages of embryos from other mammals, notably the mouse from which most of our understanding has come, may rely on the activity of different genes.
"In the UK, it is legal to do this for research purposes on early human embryos with a licence from the HFEA, but the 14 day limit applies and it would be illegal to implant the embryos into a woman for further development."