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British Scientists Gain Approval To Edit DNA In Human Embryos


For the first time, the government is allowing scientists to edit the DNA inside human embryos. As NPR's health correspondent, Rob Stein, reports, that's extremely controversial.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Scientists have recently developed powerful new techniques that let them make very precise changes in DNA. Kathy Niakan wants to use them to help of millions of women who are infertile.

KATHY NIAKAN: We would really like to understand the genes that human embryos need to develop successfully into a healthy baby. And the reason why this is so important is that infertility and miscarriages are extremely common, but they're very poorly understood.

STEIN: Niakan is with the Francis Crick Institute in London. She asked government regulators to let her do something no one's been formally allowed to do before, edit DNA in human embryos. Today, the British government said OK. And in an exclusive interview with NPR, Niakan outlined her plans. She'll edit genes in embryos left over at infertility clinics to try to figure out what they do.

NIAKAN: It could really provide us with crucial insights to understand - what are good predictors of successful and healthy human development?

STEIN: But this worries some people. The big fear is this could open the door to scientists editing DNA in embryos for other reasons, and they could make some kind of mistake that would mess up the human gene pool.

DAVID KING: I do think it's the first step on a slippery slope to creating genetically modified babies.

STEIN: David King runs a genetic watchdog group in London.

KING: Then we get into that world of designer babies that everybody says they want to avoid. That's a horrible world that I don't - I really don't think we want to be living in.

STEIN: So I asked Niakan about all this.

Do you have any plans to actually ever implant embryos that you've made these kinds of edits into a person to make a baby...

NIAKAN: ...No, absolutely not. I mean, there are very clear regulations in the U.K. that would make that completely illegal. And you would never, ever want to move in that direction.

STEIN: Niakan says she could start her experiments as early as this summer. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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