Stem-cell researcher Kathy Niakan became famous around the world last week after the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in the UK granted her permission to genetically “edit” human embryos.
Dr. Niakan, of London’s Francis Crick Institute, will thus be the first European to intervene in the course of human life – by “editing” the genetic makeup of a days-old human embryo. But she’ll do it for research purposes only. She will be working with the most intriguing tool available in biotechnology: a new method named Crispr-Cas9, which is, in essence, a pair of genetic scissors.
The process makes it easier than ever before to shorten, extend and reshape the “genotype”, the individual’s collection of genes. It also opens up the possibility of creating genetically altered “designer babies” and ultimately redesigning life itself, although Dr. Niakan insists she neither intends to do so or is permitted to do so.
There has nevertheless been a surge of protests against the U.K.’s authorization. Politicians, even stem-cell researchers such as Hans Schöler, director of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine in Münster, warn: “This research will open the door.”