UK scientists have been granted permission by the fertility regulator to genetically modify human embryos under strict conditions.

Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London hope that their gene-editing experiments will provide a deeper understanding of the earliest moments of human life and could provide insight into the problems that can cause miscarriage.

The research, which will be led by Dr Kathy Niakan, will examine the first seven days after fertilisation, during which a single cell multiplies to around 250 cells

In line with Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) regulations, any donated embryos will be used for research purposes only and cannot be used in treatment or implanted into a woman. The embryos will be donated by patients who have given their informed consent to the donation of embryos which are surplus to their IVF treatment.

Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, said:

“I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan’s application. 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.”

Following approval by the HFEA, the research now needs to gain ethical approval and, subject to that approval, the research programme will begin within the next few months.

Human gene modification is a controversial field of research, with some claiming that altering the DNA of an embryo is the first step towards designer babies.

Last year, Chinese scientists announced a world first when they corrected a gene that causes a blood disorder in a human embryo.

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