That's right! Scientists in the U.K. have received the green light from the office of the fertility regulator to modify human embryos using existing tools and methods. This is the first time in the world that a country has given the o.k. for human genetic alteration of embryos.
The research done on these embryos will be stringently overseen by the government, and it will be illegal for the scientists to implant them back into a woman or to bring them into term; instead, the scientists will be simply 'tagging' parts of the embryo's DNA and tracking it through the first days of the embryo's development so that they can learn more about the early stages of fetal development, and therefore learn how to prevent some issues in pregnancy which can damage the mother or child from happening.
In this day and age where less and less seems technically impossible, this is a big win for science and technology! Ten years ago, it cost thousands of dollars just to have a website built; now you can build one in minutes using website templates at Website Builder. We've gone from pixelated video games and terrible graphics in movie to achieve ever-more lifelike visuals: we've even got the upcoming opportunity for easily-accessible VR in the form of the Oculus Rift.
So what does this genome-altering win mean for the world of the future?
The lead physician on the human-genome editing project is a Dr. Kathy Niakan, who has researched human development for several decades, and plans to begin studying the human embryos for the first seven days after fertilization, where they'll go from the 'fertilized egg' state to a blastocyst, where the embryo has as many as 200 or 300 cells.
It's currently true that out of every roughly 100 fertilized embryos in a group of women, less than 50 will even survive that first 7 days to reach the blastocyst stage. Only 25 of those will implant correctly into the womb, and only 13 of the original 100 will develop for more than 3 months. So, learning more about that critical early time, what can go wrong, and how it can be mediated with clinical supervision, is ideally meant to help everyone who intends to have a baby, and perhaps offer more safe and less invasive fertility treatments for women having trouble.
But it's important to know that while this might be the first time a country has approved human genome editing in embryos, it's actually already been done-- illegally! A group of Chinese scientists last year announced that they had undergone gene editing in embryos already, without authority from the government, to correct a gene which cause severe blood disorders. And while that group of scientists might have overstepped the law in that case, it might very well be because many policies and laws in China regarding the regulation of scientific practice are relatively vague and unclear. Even the scientific advisor to the U.K.'s fertility regulator, which ultimately made the decision to allow this research, released a statement saying that regarding the Chinese group, it's often unclear where the boundaries are until you've stepped past it.
But their goal was very different from that of the U.K. group, which will specifically be studying miscarriages, why miscarriages happen, and the development of a healthy baby. At present, no one really knows what specific things can go wrong in the uterine environment to ensure that so few embryos become healthy fetuses.
The U.K. group will be working only with knowingly donated embryos, to help reduce moral quandary about their project, and will be regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). As far as everything stands, it looks as though the research could begin in just a few months.
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