Scientists in Britain have applied for permission to genetically modify the DNA of human embryos as part of a research project into the earliest stages of human development.

The request has been made in the UK months after Chinese researchers became the first team in the world to announce they had altered the DNA of human embryos.

Such research may bring much heated debate as it will use a controversial technique, but could also make great strides in the study of infertility.

The embryos would be destroyed after the research and not implanted into the womb. The government’s fertility supervision team said it had received the application, which it will be viewing in due course.

In the UK, it is illegal to use gene editing of embryos in IVF treatment, but it is permissible for research purposes when a license is held.

A spokesperson for the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority said “We have recently received an application to use Crispr/Cas9 (gene editing) in one of our licensed research projects, and it will be considered in due course.”

Designer Baby Fears

When China announced they had genetically modified human embryos there was an outcry of concerns that such research may lead towards designer babies, despite the fact that the embryos were never intended to be used in IVF.

Researchers fear that such an outcry here could barricade less controversial uses of genome editing, the likes of which could potentially lead to the greater development of treatments for disease.

For example, such studies could help researchers understand why some women lose their babies before term.

Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, in an interview with the Guardian said: “The knowledge we acquire will be very important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops, and this will inform our understanding of the causes of miscarriage. It is not a slippery slope [towards designer babies] because the UK has very tight regulation in this area.”

Implantation at this Stage would be “Foolish”

Group leader of the institute, Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, suggests that any use of the technique for altering the genes of embryos intended for reproduction would be “foolish” at this stage. He said: “We are fortunate to have good regulations in the UK that permit research with a license, but not the implantation of any embryo that has had its genome modified.”

Dr Sarah Chan of the University of Edinburgh said the news that UK scientists had applied to the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority for a license to perform genome editing research using embryos should be a cause for confidence, not concern.

“UK scientists are poised to make a world-leading contribution to this exciting field.

“At the same time, we should be reassured to know that this work is being carried out under a robust regulatory scheme that ensure high scientific and ethical standards.”