U.K. science team receives approval to genetically modify human embryos

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Feb 2, 2016, 11:08 AM EST

From a scientific standpoint, it’s been the logical next step for a while. Now a British research team has received approval to start tinkering around with the genetic makeup of human embryos.

Reuters reports that the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has approved a research application from the Francis Crick Institute to use “gene editing” techniques on human embryos. It’s a big deal in the scientific community, but obviously comes with a few caveats. The research itself is designed to “look at the first seven days of a fertilized egg's development, from a single cell to around 250 cells.” The team is forbidden from developing the modified embryos, and they cannot be implanted.

"I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan's application,” Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, said in a statement. “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."

Of course, mucking about in the things that make us us is a bit of a slippery slope (and a Chinese team claiming to have done it last year caused quite the uproar), so watchdog groups caution that this initial approval could be the first step toward “GM babies.” But researcher Kathy Niakan notes that the approval is merely a level-headed step toward valuable research, and not something worthy of “moral panic.” Of course, in a case like this, there is no right or wrong answer. 

What’s your take on the moral implications of this type of science?

(Via Reuters)