The UK is leading the world after the national Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) approved a research application from the Francis Crick Institute to use new gene editing techniques on human embryos.

decision after considering submissions from the Institute that outlined how the research led by Dr Kathy Niakan, a group leader at the Crick, aims is to understand the genes that human embryos need to develop successfully. The gene editing work carried out at the Crick will be for research purposes and will look at the first seven days of a fertilised egg’s development from a single cell to around 250 cells. The HFEA and the Crick say that the knowledge acquired from the research will be important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops. They say that the knowledge may also improve embryo development after in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and might provide better clinical treatments for infertility, using conventional medical methods.

Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, said: “I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan’s application. Dr Niakan’s proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development – one to seven days.” There has been concern that the concept could in time be used to create ‘designer babies’ but in line with HFEA regulations, any donated embryos will be used for research purposes only and cannot be used in treatment.  The embryos will be donated by patients who have given their informed consent to the donation of embryos which are surplus to their IVF treatment. Subject to ethical approval, the research programme will begin within the next few months.