The UK regulator for embryo research, the HFEA is facing just this question, so we decided to ask you what you thought they should do! The answers are surprising…

Should the HFEA allow research to edit the genome of human embryos?

  • Yes, but only for basic, non-clinical research  40%
  • Yes, any studies should be permitted  35%
  • No, this research is not acceptable  25%

Last month a team of scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London applied to the UK regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), to conduct genome-editing research in human embryos. While the scientists involved argue that the work would be solely for basic research purposes, elucidating the genes at work during early human development, for some permitting this research would be the start of a slippery decline towards ethically questionable clinical applications.

We put the dilemma to you in last month’s poll, and the results certainly reflect the diversity of opinion within the genomics community! Perhaps unsurprisingly the (marginally) prevailing view is that non-clinical, basic research of the sort proposed by The Crick would acceptable. Over the last few months the UK has staked a claim to being a permissive environment for genome-editing research, so long as such work is subject to continued ethical appraisal and extensive dialogue with the public. The HFEA permits basic embryo research under license. According to Dr Kathy Niakan, the scientist in question, and her colleagues, her proposed project has no potential therapeutic applications and does not contravene UK law preventing genome-editing in embryos for clinical use. “Kathy has no intention of making changes to the genome for clinical application,” explained Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist at the Institute. 

The remaining, more polarised, options for either entirely unregulated research or no research at all also had their fair share of the vote with 35% and 25% of the responses respectively. Considering the existing landscape for global research, this is unsurprising. In early 2015 a team of Chinese researchers revealed that they had edited the genes of non-viable human embryos to correct a heritable genetic defect. Their work was greeted with widespread condemnation from the scientific community, and prompted the US NIH to adopt the other extreme and reaffirm their ban on any genome-editing research in human embryos. The response to our poll is likely to be in response to significant concerns that in a more permissive environment ethically questionably uses of the technology are inevitable.  

In a recent comment for Nature members of the Hinxton Group, and international meeting of scientists, policy experts and ethicists, explored a potential roadmap for the future of CRISPR research. They argue that even though “the ease of use and accessibility of the technology make it ripe for exploitation by rogue or charlatan organizations”, the future of CRISPR research should be governed by an open, nuanced debate rather than swinging between polarised opposites. 

 

This poll is in collaboration with Source BioScience, an international provider of laboratory products and services.

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