Gene Editing: U.K. Approves Controversial Technique -- What You Need To Know

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Feb 02, 2016 03:53 AM EST

British fertility regulators have given scientists their approval for gene editing of human embryos. The landmark decision, which will allow experts to conduct controversial DNA-altering experiments, will be facilitated at the Francis Crick Institute in London, BBC reported.

The Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority (HFEA) in the U.K. gave their approval in the hopes of finding answers about infertility. The researchers led by Kathy Niakan will be making use of a new technology called CRISPR in their procedures.

However, the HFEA prohibits the use of the technology in the actual implantation of genetically modified human embryos in a woman's womb. In fact, the embryo will only be given 14 days to survive during the experiment, Time reported.

"The point is to understand things about basic human biology. We know lots about how the early mouse embryo develops in terms of how various cell lineages give rise to the embryo or to [other] tissue that make up the placenta. But we know very little about how this happens in the human embryo," said Robin Lovell-Badge of the Crick Institute.

Here's what else you need to know about this ground breaking technique:

What is gene editing? 

Gene editing involves using molecular tools to repair, replace or delete defective DNA samplings. CRISPR is the newest tool developed by the experts. It's easier, cheaper and requires minimal training. However, it is older and more complicated methods have been done by other scientists before.

How does gene editing contribute to medicine? 

Aside from learning about infertility in this British experiment, experts hope to use gene editing for sickle cell disease, which is characterized by abnormal hemoglobin in the red blood cells, per National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. This could effectively pave way for treating or eradicating diseases plaguing humans for years -- leukemia, HIV and muscular dystrophy.

Is gene editing legal? 

Certain governments have imposed a total ban on the technology, while others - like China - provide strict guidelines for conducted researchers. Fox News reported that the U.S. government won't fund experiments of this nature, however, there are no restrictions for private-funded researchers. Britain only allows basic laboratory experiments for gene editing.

Is gene editing ethical? 

Also known as germline engineering, ethicists are advocating against this technology because it could potentially result in genetically modified babies or "designer babies" per ABC News. However, the Associated Press reported that the current methods are not yet fit for use in actual human pregnancies.

The consequences of gene editing have not yet been fully explored. However, ethicists worry that scientists are taking the first step in that direction.

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