Scientists working at The Francis Crick Institute (the Crick) in London have applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to use new "genome editing" techniques on human embryos.
Should the licence application be successful, the aim of the research, led by Dr Kathy Niakan, a group leader at the Crick, is to understand the genes human embryos need to develop successfully.
The work carried out at the Crick will be for research purposes and will not have a clinical application. However, the knowledge acquired from the research will be very important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops. This knowledge may improve embryo development after in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and might provide better clinical treatments for infertility.
Dr Niakan said: "To provide further fundamental insights into early human development we are proposing to test the function of genes using gene editing and transfection approaches that are currently permitted under the HFE Act 2008. We also propose to use new methods based on CRIPSR/Cas9, which allows very specific alterations to be made to the genome. By applying more precise and efficient methods in our research we hope to require fewer embryos and be more successful than the other methods currently used.
"Importantly, in line with HFEA regulations, any donated embryos would be used for research purposes only. These embryos would be donated by informed consent and surplus to IVF treatment."
Genome editing has been used in research for a number of years but recent advances and the introduction of the CRISPR-Cas9 system mean that work can be done in a more precise way than before.
The stage of embryo development that the research team plan to study also has tremendous potential for stem cell research, which will have benefits and advances in many different fields of medicine.