A Japanese government bioethics panel has approved the modification of genes from fertilized human egg cells for basic research. They did so just last week, on Friday, April 22. However, it rejected clinical testing of gene modification technology, citing unknown and possibly harmful impacts on the next generation.
Clinical trials of gene editing technology, which involve correcting genetic defects and putting the egg back into the womb, carry too many risks and potential detrimental effects on the offspring. So the eggs that are modified will not currently be brought to term.
The bioethics panel agreed that the researchers could use the technology and modified fertilized human eggs to find out the genes responsible for the early phase of growth, to help develop treatment for congenital diseases, and to improve technologies linked to reproduction.
The panel also noted that there is a need to assess whether specific branches of inquiry absolutely require, and are impossible to conduct, without the use of fertilized human eggs. Notably, it is generally agreed by the experts that, at the present time, the use of human eggs and gene editing for non-medical purposes (such as modification for eye color or the strengthening of muscles) presents a significant ethical problem.
You can learn more about how human gene editing with CRISPR works in the video below:
Japan is not the first country to approve gene editing, and in fact, actual tests that modify human genes have already been conducted.
China shocked the world when it announced that its scientists conducted gene editing experiments on modified human embryos last year in April. Then, just a few weeks ago, Chinese scientists announced that they did it again, introducing HIV-resistance into the embryos (though the viability of this process remains to be seen).
The UK seems to be next. A team of scientists in London received the first government approval in the world to edit the genomes of human embryos for research purposes.