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Critics sound alarm over 'designer babies'

February 1, 2016

Britain has given the green light to scientists to modify the genes of human embryos for research. Critics say it raises ethical questions over the future of "designer babies."

An embryo under a microscope.
Image: picture alliance/landov

Britain's fertility regulator approved a scientist's application Monday that will allow human genetic code to be edited using a new technique that some fear crosses ethical boundaries.

Researchers will use CRISPR-Cas9, a technology that can enable scientists to find and modify or replace genetic defects.

"The only way we can understand human biology at this early stage is by further studying human embryos directly," Dr. Kathy Niakan told reporters recently at a briefing in London.

The license was granted to London's Francis Crick Institute making it the first of its kind in Europe. Chinese scientists caused an international furor last year after announcing they had genetically modified human embryos.

"The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority has approved a research application from the Francis Crick Institute to use new 'gene editing' techniques on human embryos," Niakan said in a statement Monday.

A pregnant woman lying on an examining table.
Campaigners against genetic engineering warn that the technology could one day be used to alter the DNA of fetuses in the womb.Image: Sven Bähren/Fotolia

A la carte children?

But the practice has been the subject of fierce international debate because of fears that it could be used to create babies to order.

David King, director of the UK campaign group Human Genetics Alert, told the Reuters news agency that Niakan's plans are "the first step on a path ... towards the legalization of GM babies."

Research approved this week stipulates that the embryos will not become children as they must be destroyed within 14 days and can only be used for basic research.

The lab told reporters last month that their first genetic modification would center on Oct4, which is believed to play a critical role in the earliest states of the human fetus. That's led to other researchers to defend the research as potentially achieving great strides in prenatal health.

"This project, by increasing our understanding of how the early human embryo develops and grows, will add to the basic scientific knowledge needed for devising strategies to assist infertile couples and reduce the anguish of miscarriage," Bruce Whitelaw, a professor of animal biotechnology at Edinburgh University's Roslin Institute, wrote in an emailed comment.

Follows tech strides in China

Chinese genetic researchers have already published a paper describing how they were able to manipulate the genes in human embryos. The April 2015 research paper described the first-recorded attempt of using the CRISP-Cas9 technique using embryos from a fertility clinic.

Their laboratory experiment didn't succeed as envisioned but raised the prospect of altering genes to repair the genes of future generations with a myriad of advances in clinical treatment of diseases.

jar/rg (Reuters, AFP, AP)