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Speaker Spotlight: Professor Kathy Niakan

Professor Kathy Niakan is a developmental biologist at the University of Cambridge. In 2016, she became the first scientist in the world to gain regulatory approval to edit the genomes of human embryos for research. Professor Niakan is part of the panel discussion Cambridge at the cutting edge of human embryo research: does better science require fewer limits? (8 April, online), which debates the many legal, ethical, and moral questions raised about which experiments are acceptable, and where we should draw the boundaries.

Cambridge Festival: Why do you conduct research on human embryos? 

Kathy Niakan: The aim of work in our laboratory is to find out about how cells in human embryos ‘decide’ to specialise. The processes that underpin this early development are fundamental to human biology. If we knew how these processes work, this knowledge could inform the understanding and treatment of infertility, miscarriage, and developmental disorders. We can also use this knowledge to improve our use of stem cells in both science and medicine.

CF: How regulated is this research? 

KN: The UK has a very robust regulatory framework for this research, under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act. This research is also subject to Local Research Ethics Committee review. The UK therefore has very tight regulation in this area. In other countries the regulation can vary considerably. The UK is seen as having a comparatively rational approach to this sensitive area of research, which is often either emulated or the envy of other countries.

CF: Do you think these regulations are too stringent or not strict enough? 

KN: The HFE Act provides a stable, yet flexible, framework in which UK bioscience and clinical advances can flourish. I think the regulations strike the right balance between strict oversight and being permissive to advance both basic research and clinical applications. This allows for fundamental basic research that may eventually have a clinical impact while at the same time ensuring essential safeguards are in place.

CF: What are some of the main advances that you anticipate in the next 5-10 years?

KN: There is debate at the moment around the relative benefit of relaxing the “14-day rule”, which is the current legal limit for human embryo culture in vitro. Scientifically, the benefits of extending the limit are clear. For example, understanding how egg and sperm cells are formed could enable restoration of function in otherwise sub-optimal germ cells from patients dealing with infertility. This knowledge could also be used to develop methods to generate functional eggs or sperm from stem cells which could eventually allow for a near limitless supply of functional gametes for infertility treatment. Stem cells are also being used to generate increasingly more complex models of human development.

As these models gain increasing complexity the question arises – how do we delineate a “true” gamete-derived embryo from a stem cell-derived model? There is also the possibility that should a safe and efficient genome editing method be developed, this could in the future provide more options for patients to eliminate the risk of severe and life-limiting heritable disease. These are some of the potential advances in basic research being led by Cambridge scientists that need to be understood and debated openly because it is ultimately up to society to decide whether such advances are suitably beneficial to outweigh concerns.

As a scientist, I realise that this research is being carried out in a social context, too, so I really value the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from law, sociology and other non-science disciplines when considering these issues. In Cambridge, we are lucky to have Cambridge Reproduction, an initiative that brings together researchers working on these new technological challenges from across the whole range of disciplines. This network complements the cutting-edge research in the Centre for Trophoblast Research based in the School of Biological Sciences.

CF: Do you see a time when boundaries to this research might not exist? What could be some of the ramifications? 

KN: No, I can’t see this happening because it would be counterproductive. It would be worrying for researchers like me because a robust regulatory framework and boundaries gives us reassurance that the research we conduct is supported and done in the best interest of the public ultimately. The boundaries and safeguards are also incredibly important to ensure public support of this sensitive area of research.