Genome editing technique used to study human embryonic development

Obstetrics & Gynaecology

The present study is the first to use the genome editing to elucidate the function of genes in human embryos, which could provide a better insight of early human development, transform IVF technique and describe pregnancy failures. The study was carried by the researchers from the Francis Crick Institute, together with the colleagues of Oxford University, Cambridge University, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Seoul National University and Bourn Hall Clinic. It was funded by the UK Medical Research Council, Wellcome and Cancer Research UK.

The researchers used genome editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9, to snip out a gene that produces a protein called OCT4, which usually become active in the first few days of human embryonic development.

After the fertilization of an egg, it divides, and after about seven days it forms a ball-shaped structure called a blastocyst that later aids placenta formation. The present study found that human embryos need OCT4 as a key gene for embryonic development since the removal of gene coded for OCT4 prevented the embryos from correctly forming the blastocyst.

Kathy Niakan, a lead author of the study, said; currently, the effect of genetic factors on pregnancy is less known. Hence the researcher hopes that the technique could be used by others to understand: “what a gene does in the developing embryo is to see what happens when it isn’t working. Now we have demonstrated an efficient way of doing this; we hope that other scientists will use it to find out the roles of other genes.”

If the researchers could establish the critical genes required for the proper development of the embryo that could aid to understand the pregnancy failure and improve IVF treatments. The techniques could also lead to developments in regenerative medicine, as OCT4 is also believed to be important in stem cell biology, noted the authors.

Pluripotent stem cells could be derived from human embryos and produce several types of tissues in the body. Hence the scientists use stem cell technology to form tissues that can repair damage or substitute missing structures in the body.

In conclusion, the technology is currently available to create and use pluripotent stem cells. The better insight into the role of different genes in the formation and stability of pluripotent cells could enable the researchers to produce and use stem cells more consistently.