UK scientists are using human genome editing, with a tool called CRISPR, to figure out what causes human embryos to stop developing.
The study, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, took 41 embryos and used CRISPR, which consists of short, repetitive DNA sequences that can cut and paste chosen gene sequences, to target the gene that makes OCT4, a protein that plays a role in early human development. Without OCT4, the embryos collapsed within a week.
The study did not conclusively say what causes women to miscarry or any reasons why in vitro fertilization fails to occur, but the researchers say it the first step towards understanding the other genes involved in embryo development.
“If we knew the key genes for an embryo to develop successfully that would, I would hope in the future, lead to improvements in IVF technology and give us really important insights into why some pregnancies fail,” Dr. Kathy Niakan told BBC.
In August, the United States had its own first successful CRISPR breakthrough, discovering it was possible to remove genes for diseases — in that study, genetic heart disease — from embryos.
In both cases, the embryos did not develop into fetuses and it still may be a while off before such studies allow it. CRISPR and gene editing technology is extremely controversial, with protesters calling it “playing God” or creating “designer babies.”
Gene editing in the United States is only permitted if there are no other options and only for inheritable diseases, according to a committee formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine.
Niakan calls her team’s work simple research.
“This is basic research which is providing us with a foundation of knowledge about early human development.”