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Impact story

Image credit: Francis Crick Institute Press Office, used with permission

MRC-funded scientists gain licence to edit genes in human embryos in the UK

7 Nov 2017

This case study forms part of our Investing for Impact report, looking at how MRC- funded research delivers impact. More can be found in the Investing for Impact section of our website.

In February 2016, Dr Kathy Niakan’s team at the Francis Crick Institute became the first to receive permission from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to use the genome editing technique 'CRISPR-Cas9' in human embryos. Dr Niakan was subsequently listed as one of Time Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People of 2016.

The genome editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 has been hailed as one of the most momentous breakthroughs in biomedical science in recent years. Although CRISPR is not the first gene editing tool, it is by far one of the simplest and most inexpensive. The significance of the ability to manipulate the genome by precisely editing genes is obvious due to its broad range of applications; CRISPR can theoretically be carried out on any living organism, including humans.

Dr Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute is interested in improving our understanding of how cells become specialised during the earliest stages of human development, within the first week after fertilisation. The first important step in this process is when a small subset of cells is set aside to develop into the foetus, whilst another subset of cells becomes destined to form the placenta. Identifying the genes that are essential for these specialisation processes may provide insight into the causes of pregnancy failures or birth defects. Understanding this important switch in cell fate may also provide a deeper understanding of stem cell formation.

Early stage human embryoIn February 2016, Dr Kathy Niakan's team became the first to receive permission from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to use CRISPR in human embryos. The technique will allow her team to better understand the earliest stages of human development. Genetic modification of human embryos in research has been permitted by the legislation since 2009. The significance of the HFEA licence for this work is that it is the first time genome editing using CRISPR, a specific and efficient genome editing technique, has been approved. 

Investigating early development could ultimately help improve infertility treatment, and better understand the earliest stages of human life. It is important to note that these potential improvements in infertility treatment would not be delivered through genome editing: it is illegal to implant an embryo modified in this way into a human. Rather, a better understanding of this stage might allow, for example, the development of more successful human embryo culture conditions within IVF treatment. 


  • Categories: Research
  • Health categories: Reproduction
  • Locations: London
  • Type: Impact story, Success story