The first genetically-modified human embryos could be created in Britain within weeks according to the scientists who are about to learn whether their research proposal has been approved by the fertility watchdog.
Although it will be illegal to allow the embryos to live beyond 14 days, and be implanted into the womb, the researchers accepted that the research could one day lead to the birth of the first GM babies should the existing ban be lifted for medical reasons.
A licence application to edit the genes of “spare” IVF embryos for research purposes only is to be discussed on 14 January by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), with final approval likely to be given this month.
Scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London said that if they are given the go-ahead they could begin work straight away, leading to the first transgenic human embryos created in Britain within the coming weeks or months.
The researchers emphasised that the research concerns the fundamental causes of infertility and involves editing of the genes of day-old IVF embryos that will not be allowed to develop beyond the seven-day “blastocyst” stage – it will be illegal to implant the modified embryos into the womb to create GM babies.
However, they accepted that if the research leads to a discovery of a genetic mutation that could improve the chances of successful pregnancies in women undergoing IVF treatment, it could lead to pressure to change the existing law to allow so-called “germ-line” editing of embryos and the birth of GM children.
“If you found that there were people carrying a specific mutation which meant that their embryos would never implant [in the womb], then you could contemplate using the genome-editing technique to make germ-line changes which would then allow the offspring of that woman to be able to reproduce without having a problem,” said Professor Robin Lovell-Badge of the Crick Institute.