A “designer baby” could be a possibility in Britain as early as this summer, depending on the decision of a fertility watchdog. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is considering whether the controversial technique of genetically modifying human embryos can go ahead in the U.K.
In order to establish exactly which genes drive early human development, scientists at the world-renowned Francis Crick Institute in London want to edit the DNA of up to 120 “spare” IVF embryos, reported The Independent.
The team claim their research will help cut miscarriage rates and improve fertility treatment. They already have a licence to carry out research on human IVF embryos but they want permission to use 20- to 30 day-old embryos that are left over from IVF treatments and say it may be necessary to create IVF embryos specifically for the research.
If HFEA gives them the green light, experiments could commence as early as March and have gene-edited the first human embryo by the summer.
The research would be carried out on frozen embryos discarded by U.K. fertility clinics, with the couples’ consent. These embryos cannot legally be kept alive for more than two weeks or implanted into women to achieve a pregnancy.
The only other country in the world to sanction GM embryos is China. In the U.K. it is permissible to use gene editing for research purposes as long as the embryos are eventually destroyed. Although researchers say they do not intend to implant the embryos in the womb, if their tests do succeed in lowering the chances of miscarriage, the pressure to allow genetically modified babies will undoubtedly grow.
Dr. David King of independent watchdog Human Genetics Alert expressed concern saying, “We are worried it is a step on the path towards GM babies.”
While many people are against gene editing for ethical reasons, believing that it is dangerous to tamper with evolution, others see it as an invaluable method of helping to prevent genetic diseases at birth.
The Crick Institute’s Robin Lovell-Badge gave The Independent one example of how gene editing might be used: “If you found that there were people carrying a specific mutation which meant that their embryos would never implant [in the womb], then you could contemplate using the genome-editing technique to make germline changes which would then allow the offspring of that woman to be able to reproduce without having a problem.”