British scientists announced Friday that they had applied for permission to edit the DNA in human embryos, a controversial step that has provoked intense debate around the world.
Kathy Niakan of The Francis Crick Institute in London and colleagues filed an application with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates experiments involving human embryos in England.
"To provide further fundamental insights into early human development we are proposing to test the function of genes using gene editing and transfection approaches," Niakan said in a written statement released by the institute.
The researchers stressed that their work would be aimed only at gaining basic understanding of the genes human embryos need to develop, and none of the embryos would be used to try to create a baby. The research would use embryos left over at fertility clinics.
Scientists around the world are debating the ethics of using a new technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to make genetic changes in human eggs, sperm or embryos. CRISPR-Cas9 enables scientists to make very precise changes in DNA much more easily than before.
Some oppose any use of the technology on human eggs, sperm or embryos because those changes could be passed down for generations and become a permanent part of the human genetic blueprint. Critics say that could open the door to accidentally introducing a new disease or to trying to genetically engineer the human race and create "designer babies," in which parents pick the traits of their children.
But some scientists believe using the technology on human eggs, sperm or embryos could provide valuable insights that could have benefits, including leading to new ways to prevent or treat many diseases.
Some scientists favor letting scientists conduct experiments in the laboratory as long as they don't take the next step and attempt any clinical applications, such as trying to create babies free of certain diseases. They say that would be premature, since it's unclear whether it would be safe.
The International Society for Stem Cell Research's guidelines "would not preclude gene editing of human embryos for research to address critical questions in embryology, as long as the experiments are approved after a rigorous process of stem cell research oversight," George Daley, a stem cell researcher at Harvard University, wrote in an email to Shots.
Other scientists say there should be a moratorium on using the technology in this way at all until society has had more time to study and debate the issues it raises.
"We would again call for a pause in all human germline modification research worldwide until these very important issues can be fully discussed and consensus guidelines can be generated by the international scientific community," Edward Lanphier, president and chief executive officer of the Sangamo Biosciences in Richmond, Calif., wrote in an email to Shots. Lanphier helped develop similar technology and is doing related research.
Kevin FitzGerald, a bioethicist at Georgetown University, said it is his "sincere hope" that the HFEA would postpone acting on the request to give more time for international debate about how best to use "this powerful research tool."
Debate about this intensified in April, when Chinese scientists reported they had used the technique to edit the DNA in human embryos for the first time.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences is studying the issue and is convening an international summit in December in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Britain's Royal Society.
The British request "underscores the importance of the upcoming international meetings on these issues," wrote Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, who developed the technology, in an email.