UK scientists seek permission to edit the genes of human embryos
Digital illustration of DNA (

British scientists have applied for permission to edit the genes of human embryos in a series of experiments aimed at finding out more about the earliest stages of human development.

Just months after Chinese scientists caused an international furor by saying they had genetically modified human embryos, Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist from London's Francis Crick Institute, has asked the British government's fertility regulator for a license to carry out similar experiments.

In a statement about her application, which was made to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Niakan said she had no intention of genetically altering embryos for use in human reproduction, but aimed to deepen scientific understanding of how a healthy human embryo develops.

"This knowledge may improve embryo development after in vitro fertilization (IVF) and might provide better clinical treatments for infertility," she said in a statement, adding that any donated embryos would be used for research purposes only.

Scientists around the world are currently debating the potential future use of new genetic technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, which allows researchers to edit virtually any gene, including in human embryos.

While the technology can enable scientists to find and change or replace genetic defects, critics say it also has the potential to create "designer babies" to order.

A spokesman for the HFEA noted that British law bans genome editing of embryos for use in treatment, but allows it for research if done under an HFEA license.

He confirmed that said the HFEA had received an application to use CRISPR-Cas9 in a licensed research project, and said it would be considered in due course.

Sarah Chan at Edinburgh University's Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics said the request for HFEA permission "should be cause for confidence, not concern".

"Genome editing research undeniably has tremendous scientific potential, and UK scientists are poised to make a world-leading contribution to this exciting field," she said. "At the same time, we should be reassured to know that this work is being carried out under a robust regulatory scheme that ensures high scientific and ethical standards."

Chinese biologists reported in April that they had carried out the first ever experiments to edit the DNA of human embryos.