Scientists in the U.K. have gained permission to modify the genetic make-up of human embryos for the first time.
On Monday, the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research center in London, said its application to use "genome editing" techniques on human embryos had been approved by the U.K.'s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
The aim of the research, led by scientist, Kathy Niakan, is to understand the first week of an embryo's development. This knowledge could ultimately be used to provide better treatments for infertility.
"Niakan's proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development ," Paul Nurse, director of the institute, said on its website.
The research now needs to gain further ethical approval from the Cambridge Central Research Ethics Committee in East England and subject to that will begin in the next few months.
The HFEA said that to its knowledge, the U.K. researchers would be the first to use the technique outside of China.
As with all embryos used in research in the U.K., it will be illegal to transfer them into a woman. The embryos will be donated by IVF patients who have given their "informed consent" to the donation of their surplus embryos, the Crick said on its website.
"Many of the women who make this donation have experienced being unable to have a child without artificial reproductive technology and make their donation altruistically with the hope of allowing others to benefit from improvements in knowledge and treatments," Alastair Kent, director of Genetic Alliance UK, said in a statement on the U.K.'s Science Media Centre website.
Genetic modification, particularly in humans, remains controversial, with some fearing the creation of so-called designer babies.
In the U.S., federal funds cannot be used for genome editing, although there is the potential for privately funded research.
In April, Chinese researchers said they had attempted to genetically alter human embryos to repair a gene defect behind a blood disorder. These scientists gained approval from a university ethics board for their research, but not a government panel, according to media reports.