Scientists in the UK can now genetically modify human embryos for the purposes of scientific research.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority gave the go-ahead for researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London to conduct experiments in genetically altering embryonic DNA, making the UK the first country to approve such a technique, the BBC reports.
The goal of the research, led by Dr. Kathy Niakan, is to uncover more information about embryonic development, fertility and the processes that drive human genetics.
"We would really like to understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby,” Niakan told the BBC. "The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they're not very well understood."
In the week following fertilization, an embryo develops from a single cell to a ball of 200-300 cells called a blastocyst, at which point each cell is assigned a specific role: whether to create the placenta, the yolk sac or the human fetus. Niakan and her team hope to gain insights into this process, as currently only 50 of every 100 fertilized eggs reach the blastocyst stage -- and only 13 develop past three months.
The researchers will focus on the first seven days after fertilization, using donated embryos; afterwards, the modified embryos will be destroyed. It will be illegal to implant the embryos into a woman.
Despite these regulations, the research is seen by many as controversial, suggesting it is the precursor to designer or GM babies and consumer eugenics.
In April 2015, scientists in China became the first to report a successful modification of human embryonic DNA when researchers in Guangzhou altered a gene that caused a blood disorder, Nature reported.
Robin Lovell-Badge, a scientific advisor to the HFEA, told the BBC that China’s research guidelines are “often unclear,” and such a research process may not be held up to the same level of scrutiny there as in the UK.
"This is the first time it has gone through a properly regulatory system and been approved," Lovell-Badge said.