The fertility regulator has opened the door for scientists to genetically modify human embryos for the first time.
This landmark decision represents the first time that a country has approved the DNA-altering technique.
The research will take place at the Francis Crick Institute in London, with the aim of developing a more profound understanding of the earliest moment in human life.
But with ethical issues of great concern, it has been emphasised that scientists will have no legal rights to implant the embryos involved in any human womb.
Nonetheless, despite the safeguards involved, this can certainly be considered controversial research.
The most obvious criticism of this technique is that it opens the possibility of designer babies being manufactured in the future.
This certainly has ethical implications, but also tends to draw criticism from religious groups.
Yet technology related to this technique is developing rapidly.
Dr Sarah Chan, from the University of Edinburgh, commented that she was confident that any moral and ethical issues had nonetheless received due consideration.
“The use of genome editing technologies in embryo research touches on some sensitive issues, therefore it is appropriate that this research and its ethical implications have been carefully considered by the HFEA before being given approval to proceed. We should feel confident that our regulatory system in this area is functioning well to keep science aligned with social interests.”
In a world-first last year, scientists in China announced they had carried out gene editing in human embryos to correct a gene that causes a blood disorder.
Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, a scientific advisor to the UK’s fertility regulator, commented that the field is evolving, and that a tight regulatory framework should be considered essential.
“China has guidelines, but it is often unclear exactly what they are until you’ve done it and stepped over an unclear boundary. This is the first time it has gone through a properly regulatory system and been approved.”
Experiments will take place in the first week following fertilisation, and a highly qualified team have been assembled in order to carry out the research.
Dr Kathy Niakan will be playing a primary role; a clinician who has spent in excess of 10 years researching human development.
Niakan offered her thoughts on why editing human embryos is valuable and why she had thus decided to participate in the groundbreaking research.
“We would really like to understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby. The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they’re not very well understood.”
A British clinic has developed a new form of IVF treatment that promises to revolutionise this sector of healthcare.
The technology in question enables conception to occur in the womb, rather than the laboratory as has been the case previously.
Doctors hope that making fertilisation more natural will mean healthier pregnancies, And the advantages to expectant mothers are obvious.
The Complete Fertility clinic in Southampton is first in the UK To utilise this new approach, which has been dubbed the AneVivo device method.
While some early analysis and murmurings on this subject have suggested that the new development is merely a gimmick, the manufacturers have strongly suggested otherwise.
Prof Nick Macklon, head of the clinic in Southampton, insisted That the technology was a fantastic innovation that was have a massive influence over IVF treatment in time.
“At this stage we are just offering it to private patients. If the NHS want to use it then they would need to know that it is cost effective. We do not know that yet. But that doesn’t mean new technology like this can’t be introduced in a cautious manner. I’m very keen that we study new innovation in IVF.”
This new technique will cast of patience around £700 per treatment, and has already been approved and rubberstamped by the UK fertility watchdog.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK’s independent regulator overseeing the use of gametes and embryos in fertility treatment and research, Has okayed the AneVivo device method To be utilised within the British healthcare system.
And a series of international trials that have already been conducted Suggest that the new technology will achieve a similar pregnancy rate to conventional IVF treatments.
250 women volunteered to participate in trials, and the initial signs for for the new techniques are certainly encouraging.
However, it should be noted that the new techniques significantly reduces the length of time that the current embryo can be kept outside of the world artificially in a dish of culture fluid.
Macklon Span of the homes of the technology, and outlined how it could benefit pregnant women in the future.
“The aim is to maximise the time spent in the body rather than in the lab. The immediate benefit is reducing exposure at this very vulnerable time of human development when genes are being switched on and off.”
In addition to the aspect of convenience, it has also been suggested in some studies that growing embryos in a dish increases the risk of genetic and other health defects.
When the HFEA approved the technology, its advisory committee stated that there was no evidence that the device should be considered unsafe.
However, it “did not feel that there was sufficient clinical data to say whether the process has a greater or lesser efficacy than that of traditional IVF methods” and it said the process “might add an unnecessary cost to patients”.
The British Fertility Society (BFS) has suggested that women from the age of 25 should be offered so-called ‘fertility MOTs’ on the NHS.
Central to these check-ups should be counting how ovaries these young women have left remaining.
Despite the fact that fertility actually diminishes rapidly during a woman’s thirties, this is a morsel of information that often escapes the notice of couples attempting to produce a baby.
Indeed, Prof. Adam Balen suggested that “every week in our clinics I see couples where surprise is expressed – they didn’t realise the degree to which fertility goes down in your 30s.”
In particular, the British Fertility Society noted that career women who consider themselves to be ‘in control’ on their own lives were often surprisingly ignorant of their dwindling ovarian reserve.
With this in mind, a national system of five-year checks, beginning at the age of 25, could help prevent women who wish to conceive from being unable to do so due to lack of ovarian produce, according to the BFS.
Cervical screening would be central to this process, but the British Fertility Society has also called for a wider program of education.
In particular, the aforementioned Balen has suggested that lessons for teenage girls and university students in how to protect and prolong fertility should be considered essential.
Family planning lessons should also be carried out at both schools and universities, as far too many women are currently optimistic about their biological clocks on the basis of anecdotal evidence.
“There is lack of understanding of the dramatic decline in fertility, and there are pressures to develop careers,” Balen suggested.
With regard to the new schemes, it has been pointed out that such checks are already offered regularly in other countries, with Denmark being a particular pioneer.
Regular screening could allow women to have a real insight into their current level of fertility, which could then have an impactful benefit on their decision or otherwise to attempt to conceive.
Women should also be given diet and lifestyle advice, with obesity and anorexia – which damage fertility – both on the rise according to advice from the British Fertility Society.
This latest advice comes in the context of a trend in which the age of motherhood continues to rise.
With this increasing average age of mothers, comes a parallel increase in the risk of infertility, miscarriage or babies suffering abnormalities.
Figures have also indicated that British women begin families later than equivalent females in other countries.
The average age at which women conceive in the UK is 30, which represents an increase of nearly two years in the last twenty years alone.
This figure compares to 28 in France and Scandinavian countries, and just 25 in the United States.
Balen suggested that the late 20s or early 30s should be considered the latest point for young couples to start a family.
There were 695,233 live births in England and Wales in 2014, a decrease of 0.5 per cent from 698,512 in 2013, and the total fertility rate decreased to 1.83 children per woman, from 1.85 in 2013.
It seems that Britain’s first national sperm bank has not been a roaring success, after it opened just under a year ago.
Figures released this week have indicated that just nine men are currently registered as donors at the site in Birmingham.
With such a poor response, the chief executive of the bank, Laura Witjens, has stated that efforts must be made to recruit more men to the fold.
Witjens has even suggested that appealing to men’s sense of virility may reap reward and attract more willing donors.
Such an approach has been successfully adopted in Denmark, where a campaign prominently based around a superhero image has proven to be popular.
In relation to the plan, Witjens stated that “if I advertised saying ‘Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are’, then I would get hundreds of donors.
“That’s the way the Danish do it. They proudly say, this is the Viking invasion, exports from Denmark are beer, Lego and sperm. It’s a source of pride.”
Although there are numerous possible reasons for the small numbers of donors, a recent change in UK law is thought to have had a serious impact on men’s willingness to participate.
According to the legislation passed in 2005, sperm donors can no longer claim anonymity. Instead, children conceived using donor eggs or sperm will be able to trace their biological parents.
Although children created via sperm donations would never have the legal right to make a financial claim against a donor, it is still believed that this prospect is negatively impacting upon the number of men willing to donate.
But Witjens was keen to emphasise that this shouldn’t be a barrier to donation. “One of the problems we have is this myth that you become the father either legally or socially.”
“Children may want to know who their biological father is, but it doesn’t mean to say that at the age of 18 they knock on your door and call you daddy. It’s about curiosity.”
With the intention of addressing the shortage of donors in the UK, the national sperm bank received an initial government grant of £77,000 when it was inaugurated. But the bank will be funded independently of the government going forward.
Despite the disappointing number of donors that the new centre has attracted, Witjens was also keen to emphasise that even the amount of sperm donated would enable 90 families to receive donations at home rather than travelling abroad.
An additional issue for the sperm bank is the number of men who fail the stringent conditions for sperm freezing. Around 80-90% of respondents are unable to meet these conditions, and are thus not suitable donors.
Increasing the amount of money donors receive has also been suggested as a way of attracting more men. Donors are paid £35 per clinic visit, but Witjens was sceptical about the value of increasing this figure.
“We might get more donors if we paid £50 or £100 per donation, but money corrupts. If you feel you can make £200 a week for four months, you might hide things about your health,” she claimed.