On January 14th, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which grants permission for labs to use human sperm, eggs, and embryos for research, approved biologist Kathy Niakan’s request to use CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos. The purpose of Niakan's research is to determine the role of key embryonic genes and how they effect development. This research will help us better understand how a human embryo grows during its first few days of life. Furthermore, Niakan’s research may provide insight into why miscarriages happen and how we can prevent them.
Niakan is using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing method, a tool that splices genes in exact locations, which can repair, replace, or knockout a gene sequence. The CRISPR method is a groundbreaking innovation that offers a cheaper, easier, faster, and more effective way to edit genes. The design of the CRISPR/Cas9 method is based on the process that bacteria use for immunity. CRISPR is one of the most revolutionary methods in modern day research and has enormous potential to fight genetic diseases. One day, we may be able to splice out cancer genes or HIV DNA.
In her editing process, Niakan must abide by current recommendations by destroying edited embryos at the end of her experiments, thereby eliminating the safety concern of germline genetic changes that could cause harm if passed down through generations. Destroying the embryos also helps to avoid certain ethical issues, since the embryos will never reach older stages.
Our knowledge of gene editing technology is still limited, and CRISPR will not be used clinically until we learn how to edit correctly and safely. At the International Summit on Human Gene Editing in December, it was established that gene-editing technology should not be used in embryos that are to be used for a pregnancy. In addition, they publicly recognized the irresponsibility associated with the clinical use of gene editing, including editing embryos intended for pregnancy. However, the committee did reach an agreement that gene editing should not be banned for experimentation on germ cells and human embryos. With only a small handful of labs performing experiments on human embryos, Niakan's research could provide more insight for future gene-editing projects, their protocols, and the associated ethical dilemmas.