Permission is likely to be given shortly to UK scientists to perform genetic engineering on human embryos using a powerful new technology whose use has been banned in more than 40 countries.
Dr Kathy Niakan, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, made her case for performing genetic modification to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority last Thursday. The authority will give a ruling later this month. Research could begin as early as March.
Philippa Taylor, head of public policy at the Christian Medical Fellowship, points out that there are two types of genetic editing. It can be done to "somatic" cells in an individual patient where sperm and eggs are not affected - a "one off" cure. Or it can be done to "germline" cells in sperm or eggs or early embryos, which would pass the genetic change down through all future children.
Dr Niakan wants to use the new technique, called CRISPR/Cas9, to edit genes in day-old human embryos left over from IVF. She plans to start with a gene called Oct4, using 20 to 30 donated embryos. If this is successful, she plans to test three or four other genes, again using a further 20 to 30 embryos. The embryos will then be destroyed.
Apart from the problem of destruction of human life, any genetic change would be in every cell, including reproductive cells, meaning the changes would be passed on through future generations.
Work on germline cells has until now been prohibited and widely condemned because of the many unknown risks to future generations. The discoverers of CRISPR say the technique should not be used at this time. American scientists have said that creating gene-edited humans is "dangerous and ethically unacceptable."
Why is the UK keen to do this research? Philippa Taylor says there are plaudits and money involved. An American professor says that since the 18th century the British have been fascinated by breeding. Galtonian eugenics sprang from University College London in the 19th century.
Ms Taylor says the British rejected eugenics after the Second World War, but IVF developers Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards voiced eugenic aims for their IVF research. The discoverers of DNA, James Watson and Francis Crick, were both eugenicists. And there is a group of neo-eugenicist philosophers and biologists pushing a eugenics agenda.
It is not certain that permission for the research will be refused. "The HFEA can never say no to scientists," was the verdict of one doctor.
For a fuller report, see here and here.