British scientists offered some new insight into the early stages of human development recently. For the first time, scientists in the U.K. have employed gene-editing techniques on human embryos. They’ve identified a key gene that controls how embryos are formed during the first few days of development. The gene-editing technology is called CRISPR Cas9.
CRISPR allows for the permanent modification of genes within organisms. It can also cut out genetic defects that are believed to contribute to miscarriages. There’s a human genetic marker known as OTC4 has an important role to play in the early stages of embryonic development. By using CRISPR, these scientists have discovered that human embryos that don’t have this gene will not grow properly. This information could help us to determine why some women have more miscarriages than others.
“Our research is the first time that genome editing has been used to understand the role of a gene in early embryonic development,” says Kathy Niakan, who led the work at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “This knowledge can be used to improve IVF treatment and improve our understanding of how some pregnancies fail.”
41 human embryos were donated by couples after in-vitro fertilization (IVF). The research found in this study could also potentially increase the amount of successful IVF procedures. Sometimes, IVF is the only option a couple has to having a baby using their own genes. Even with all of the technological advancements, however, there are still a low number of successes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 36 percent of all IVF cycles are going to result in a successful pregnancy.
It is possible that lower than normal OCT4 activity is the reason why embryos fail to implant successfully, which leads to miscarriages. In order to treat this, scientists could just change the way embryos are cultured in the IVF process.
“Many embryos arrest in culture, or fail to continue developing after implantation,” said Kay Elder, study co-author. “This research will significantly help treatment for infertile couples, by helping us to identify the factors that are essential for ensuring that human embryos can develop into healthy babies.”
The first attempt at genetically modifying human embryos in the U.S. was done earlier this year in July. Scientists in the U.K. were first given the green light to edit DNA in human embryos in early 2016.
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