Scientists edit DNA in human embryos to aid the infertile

The research heralds improvements in IVF success Credit Science

The team used genome editing techniques to stop a key gene from producing a protein called OCT4, which normally becomes active in the first few days of human embryo development.

In a first time ever, the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority granted the researchers permission to use human embryos in their study involving gene editing. The latest work highlights the shortcomings with this approach, showing that the OCT4 gene appears to play a different role in early human embryos than in mice. Results are published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, found that human embryos need OCT4 to form a blastocyst.

That according to the lead researcher, Kathy Niakan, who specializes in stem cell research.

"One way to find out what a gene does in the developing embryo is to see what happens when it isn't working", said Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientists who led the research at Britain's Francis Crick Institute.

"It may take many years to achieve such an understanding, our study is just the first step".

Invented in 2013, the genome editing procedure is known as CRISPR-Cas9 and has been increasingly used in biomedical research.

Kay Elder, study co-author from the Bourn Hall fertility clinic in Cambridge said that the technique could help improve IVF success rates, which remain frustratingly low. The majority were donated by couples who had completed their family, and wanted their surplus embryos to be used for research.

Kathy Niakan and his team said the United Kingdom has a competitive edge in human embryology because the country has a supportive regulatory framework, as well as public and charitable agencies prepared to fund research in the field.

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Lanner, whose lab is conducting studies with CRISPR of other genes that are crucial for embryo development, points to the importance of painstakingly optimizing the experimental conditions in mouse embryos before moving the studies to human embryos, as Niakan's team had done.

In addition Oct4 seems to be closely linked to the generation of embryonic stem cells - "mother" cells in the early embryo with the potential to become any kind of tissue in the body.

The study team used CRISPR/Cas9 to "turn off" the production of one particular gene, known as the OCT4.

Sir Paul Nurse, Director of the Francis Crick Institute, says: "This is exciting and important research". By applying the technique, scientists can make exact edits to the genome to deactivate genes or try to correct genetic flaws.

"There's nothing irresponsible about the research in this case", says stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler of the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine.

100 fertilised eggs, fewer than 50 reach the blastocyst stage, 25 implant into the womb and only 13 develop beyond three months during IVF. But in the human embryo knockouts, placental cells and yolk sac cells also failed to form.

Alternative for IVF is a better way of testing which embryos are going to be successful or it may be possible to amplify embryos during IVF by growing them in a different culture media - a fertiliser for fertilised eggs. "Thus, this research will open new fields of opportunity for basic and translational applications". Funding was mainly provided by the UK Medical Research Council, Wellcome and Cancer Research UK.

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