HFEA Grants Licence to Edit Human Embryos

On Monday 1 February 2016, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), released minutes confirming that it has for the first time approved an application by a UK scientist, Dr Kathy Niakan at the Crick Institute in London, to edit the genes of human embryos. 

Although the HFEA, the UK fertility watchdog, has approved Dr Niakan's application, the Crick Institute still requires approval by the Cambridge Central Research Ethics Committee later this year before gene editing work can start.

Dr Niakan's team intend to study genetic changes in donated embryos left over from IVF treatments, with the aim of improving fertility treatment success rates and preventing early miscarriages.  They plan to remove small amounts of DNA to disable specific genes suspected of playing a key part in the early development of human embryos.

It is anticipated around 30 or 40 genetically modified embryos will be used in this scientific research.  None of the embryos are expected to survive beyond six days, well within the legal limit of 14 days, and none will be implanted into the womb. This scientific research does not intend to create embryos free from disease or with particular physical characteristic that would create "designer babies".

Many of the donated embryos come from women and couples who have struggled to conceive naturally and have needed fertility treatment to have a child. They have altruistically donated embryos to scientific research to help improve knowledge, understanding and treatments to benefit others.

The approval of this work by the HFEA enables progress in scientific research into the early development of human embryos and miscarriage beyond the limitations associated with research in animals.  This recognises that the development of human embryos is different from that of animals.

The HFEA regulates scientific research as well as fertility treatment given to patients at UK licensed fertility clinics.  It is there to help deliver a good fertility treatment service and comply with the law governing fertility treatment.

Fertility treatment and modern day family building involves an evolving range of medical techniques and takes many forms including: in vitro fertilisation (IVF), intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), intrauterine insemination (IUI), donor insemination (DI), embryo testing including PGD and PGS , surrogacy, posthumous conception, solo-parenting, known donation, inter-family donation and co-parenting.  These can create complex issues, including legal issues about the use and storage of eggs, sperm and embryos and the legal status of parents, donors, surrogates and children born as a result of fertility treatment.  Read more about the value of expert fertility law advice. 

If you would like assistance with fertility, parenting and family law issues in the UK contact Louisa Ghevaert, Partner and Head of the Fertility and Parenting Team at Michelmores, by email louisa.ghevaert@michelmores.com or call +44 (0)207 7886382.