The scientists will use a new gene-altering technique called Crispr (Source: Getty)
The UK's science community has steered well clear of the controversial practice of genetically modifying human embryos. But now, scientists at London's Francis Crick Institute are trying to get permission to do just that, marking what could be a huge turning point in British science.
Using a novel gene-correction technique called Crispr/Cas9, they want to change the genetic make-up of spare embryos donated by IVF patients to study the early stages of human development, which could ultimately lead to the creation of new treatments for diseases.
If they are granted permission by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, engineered embryos could be created in the UK within months.
Kathy Niakan, one of the researchers involved in the application, told The Guardian
that the procedure would be used to determine which genes are involved in the first few days of human fertilisation, and therefore to find out why some women lose their babies early on in pregnancy.
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.
The application for the license follows a breakthrough made by scientists in the University of Guangzhou, China last April, when Crispr was used on leftover IVF embryos to modify the gene that causes a fatal blood disorder called beta-thalassaemia.
The prospect of genetically engineering embryos has met huge criticism, although UK laws are currently in place to prevent these embryos being implanted in women, and the team at the Francis Crick Institute have been clear that they will only use the method for scientific research.
There are also concerns that this kind of genetic manipulation could lead to unforeseen consequences in a human's body if an altered embryo is allowed to grow, and that harmful changes could pass on down through generations.
So deep are these concerns that the US government has completely banned government-funded research in America. In the UK, this kind of research is technically legal, but only for a maximum of two weeks per embryo.