Britain's fertility regulator has approved a scientist's request to edit the human genetic code in an effort to fight inherited diseases—but critics fear the new technique crosses too many ethical boundaries, reports the AP. The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority announced Monday it has granted a research application to a team led by Kathy Niakan to try to understand the genes that human embryos need to develop successfully. Niakan, of the Francis Crick Institute, plans to use gene editing to analyze the first week of an embryo's growth. This research will "enhance our understanding of [in vitro fertilization] success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development," says the director of the Francis Crick Institute. Scientists say gene-editing techniques could one day lead to treatments for conditions like HIV, and inherited diseases like muscular dystrophy and sickle cell disease.
Last year, Chinese researchers made the first attempt at modifying genes in human embryos. Their experiment didn't work—the embryos weren't viable—but it raised the prospect of altering genes to repair the genes of future generations. International laws and guidelines vary widely about what research is allowed on embryos; in the US, the NIH won't fund this kind of research, but private funding is allowed. Critics warn that tweaking the genetic code this way could produce a slippery slope that leads to so-called "designer babies," where parents seek taller, stronger, or smarter children with specific physical characteristics. "This is the first step on a path that scientists have carefully mapped out toward the legalization of [genetically modified] babies," says a rep for anti-gene-manipulation group Human Genetics Alert. At an international meeting in Washington last year, scientists agreed that gene-editing research should continue, despite the ethical and legal ramifications. (Read more Britain stories.)