The first British researchers have applied for permission to alter the DNA of human embryos to better understand the reason women have miscarriages, amid a broader debate over whether the testing is appropriate.
Earlier this year, Chinese scientists became the first in the world to modify human embryos. Researchers from the Francis Crick Institute are the first to seek permission to use the technique in Great Britain, where it is currently illegal except for research purposes.
The researchers hope to better understand the key genes involved in the first stages of fertilization and ultimately to determine the reason some women miscarry, according to The Guardian. The embryos, which are donated by couples who have a surplus after IVF treatment, would be destroyed after the research is completed. They cannot legally be studied for longer than two weeks.
But others, including some in the medical field, say that there are too many unresolved legal and ethical issues with gene editing and have called for a halt to research on human embryos until those issues can be decided. Even supporters agree the technique is so new it's still not certain that it is safe, including to potential future generations. And it may not be possible to obtain all the information on possible risks that a subject would need to have in order to consent to the procedure.
"It is our position that conducting this type of research on human embryos is highly premature," Michael Werner, the executive director of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, said in a statement. "We’ve called for a voluntary worldwide moratorium on the genome editing of the human germline in order to give the scientific community the opportunity to come together for a robust legal and policy discussion regarding the science, safety and ethics this research represents."
While the Alliance supports the potential for gene editing, using the technique prematurely could lead to a public backlash, its chairman, Edward Lanphier, wrote in a March op-ed with four colleagues.
"In our view, genome editing in human embryos using current technologies could have unpredictable effects on future generations. This makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable. Such research could be exploited for non-therapeutic modifications," they wrote. "We are concerned that a public outcry about such an ethical breach could hinder a promising area of therapeutic development, namely making genetic changes that cannot be inherited."
Arthur Caplan, a prominent professor of medical ethics at New York University, said that because the British researchers' application would be approved by an official group it could temper public outcry there. He said he is not opposed to the proposal, but that there may not be a need to test the technique on human embryos immediately.
"I'm not sure the case has been made that you need to go and study human embryos right now," he said. "It does seem to me that before you make the case that you want to try this in human embryos, you ought to explain why you don't need to do more animal work with this brand-new technology."
Caplan believes using extra embryos is ethical, he said, because they would be destroyed anyway. But researchers still need to figure out at what point they would be willing to make a baby using edited genes and the qualifications of those who are allowed to perform the research, he added.
It could take weeks or months for a decision from Britain's Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority on the Francis Crick Institute's application, the BBC reported.
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