On Monday, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority of Britain allowed scientists to genetically modify human embryos only for research and disease-fighting purposes.

The research will be led by Dr. Kathy Niakan and will take place at the Francis Crick Institute in London. It will use excess embryos donated by couples who have had in vitro fertilization treatment. Many of the couples who made this donation didn’t have the possibility to have a child by natural means so they had to appeal to artificial reproductive technologies. They made these donations with the hope that others could benefit from new medical advances.

The UK recently approved the first gene editing experiments on human embryos. Credit: Independent UK

Niakan’s approval only allows the study of embryos for 14 days at a time. During that time, scientists will only focus on the first seven days of a fertilized egg’s growth. In these early days, a fertilized egg evolves from a single cell to around 250 cells, which is the moment when scientists would move on to study a new embryo. They hope to study the genetic changes of the earliest stages of life, which are intended to be modified to help improve in vitro fertilization techniques and prevent early miscarriages.

But the UK is not the first to have genetically modified human embryos. The first country to do so was China, in April 2015. A group of scientists became the first in the world to modify a gene that causes a blood disorder.

However, the Chinese experiments were unsuccessful. Few of the embryos in the experiment were successfully modified, and even fewer had the changes scientists expected. None of the embryos were gestated, and the scientists said that their error rate was too high to use on viable embryos. But this doesn’t mean a dead end for scientists who will continue working hoping that one day, they will be able to eliminate certain human illnesses.

Meanwhile, policymakers are dealing with ethics and morals of what comes from this kind of technology to be able to build proper guidelines. Even in China, who accomplished the first “successful” modification, guidelines are confusing and complicated.

“China has guidelines, but it is often unclear exactly what they are until you’ve done it and stepped over an unclear boundary,” Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute told the BBC. “This is the first time it has gone through a properly regulatory system and been approved.”

The research raised concerns about an idea of “designed babies,” which goes beyond the main purpose of improvements on health and offer modifications on almost everything. Literally meaning someone can be able to decide what the baby is going to be and look like, from whether he or she has blue eyes or brown skin to its personality and intelligence.

Some people think that by the end of this century, there will be someone with the means that can provide access to the tools to use these studies to genetically modify their children. While it is not that way, it remains illegal for these genetically modified embryos to be implanted in a woman.

Source: CNN