By Raya Bidshahri

The Francis Crick institute has been granted permission to genetically modify leftover embryos from IVF clinics. This is not the first time that researchers have been given approval to modify embryos. In April 2015, a group of Chinese scientists were granted approval to modify the gene responsible for  β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder.

The research could contribute volumes of game-changing knowledge to science. The focus of the experiments, which are scheduled to begin in March, is to deactivate certain genes and observe how the embryos are affected during the earliest stages of development. This could potentially allow scientists to identify the faulty genes that are responsible for miscarriages and fertility complications and, hopefully, point to ways to prevent such outcomes. Hence, the study should significantly contribute to the understanding of IVF success rates. Progress in this area might also help scientists figure out how to eradicate genetic diseases before the babies are born, advancing gene therapy techniques.

The grant has stimulated a lot of heated controversy as many are concerned about the ethical implications of genetic modification and its key role in eugenics. While the method can be used to predict and prevent many forms of disease, it could be abused if not regulated properly. Producing “designer babies” can have a detrimental effect on our values as a society. Additionally, there have been warnings of “slippery slopes” since such research could lead to future genetic modifications of more controversial human characteristics by giving too much power to parents to produce a child with specific genes. Many researchers have also expressed concern, noting that the effects that heritable germ-line modifications will have on future generations remains unknown.

With the right policies and regulations we can reap the benefits from such research projects and prevent misuse as much as possible. For instance, the license committee has claimed that it is illegal to transfer modified embryos into a woman for treatment, at least until we develop a better understanding of the effects of the techniques. The question that remains is how far should we allow humans to genetically modify embryos.

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