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Centre for Trophoblast Research


Research in the Niakan laboratory


In 2016, Professor Kathy Niakan's laboratory became the first in the world to receive permission from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to use the genome editing technique 'CRISPR-Cas9' in human embryos. The technique will allow her team to better understand the earliest stages of human development.

Genetic modification of human embryos in research has been permitted by the legislation since 2009. The significance of the HFEA licence for this work is that it is the first time genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9, a specific and efficient genome editing technique, has been approved.

The embryos used in the research project are left over from patients' fertility treatment and donated by patients. They are surplus to the patients' treatment or family-building needs, and so would otherwise be disposed of. The embryos will never be used to establish a pregnancy. The research focuses on the first seven days of development after fertilisation, and none of the embryos the team do research on will ever be grown past a maximum of 14 days after fertilisation, in accordance with legislation.

Investigating early development could ultimately lead to improvements in infertility treatment, and a deeper understanding of the earliest stages of human life. It is important to note that these potential improvements in infertility treatment would not be delivered through genome editing: it is illegal to implant an embryo modified in this way into a human. Rather, a better understanding of this stage might allow, for example, the development of more successful human embryo culture conditions within IVF treatment.


More about the science

The Niakan laboratory is interested in improving our understanding of how cells become specialised during the earliest stages of human development, within the first week after fertilisation. The first important step in this process is when a small subset of cells are set aside to develop into the foetus, whilst another subset of cells becomes destined to form the placenta. Identifying the genes that are essential for these specialisation processes may provide insight into the causes of pregnancy failures or birth defects. Understanding this important switch in cell fate may also provide a deeper understanding of stem cell formation.

CRISPR-Cas9 has often been described as a pair of molecular scissors, as it allows highly efficient and precise alterations of the DNA sequence. The system has two components: the Cas9 protein that makes the cut in the DNA, and a guide RNA that targets Cas9 to a particular gene region. A break in the DNA sequence triggers repair mechanisms present in all human cells, which attempt to correct the damage; this process can lead to small mutations that might inactivate the gene. Professor Niakan's team introduce the Cas9 protein and guide RNAs into human embryos at the one-cell stage, with the aim of inactivating genes that may be important for early development and investigating their role.

These CRISPR-targeted embryos have their development stopped within seven days of fertilisation and will be analysed to reveal the alterations to the DNA. Some of the embryos may be used to derive human embryonic stem cells, which again is all in vitro (in a petri dish), as some target genes are also crucial for maintaining stem cell function. Several conventional methods are then be used in line with HFEA guidelines to examine gene or protein expression to determine the importance of these target genes in early human development.


Patient information and consent forms

In any research using donated embryos from IVF treatment, it is imperative that those considering donating their embryos can give fully informed consent. This process is carefully regulated. Patient information and consent documents, and any updates to them, are always subject to approval by the relevant ethics committee (in this case, the Cambridge Central Research Ethics Committee). There is also a requirement for the patient information and consent documents to comply with HFEA licence conditions.


Note that:

  • In all work of this type, patient information and consent documents are subject to updates. The version is clearly shown on the document.
  • Different IVF clinics will use different versions of the documents. In some cases this reflects the style preferences of the particular clinic; in others it reflects the fact that the clinic may be donating embryos to more than one research project and this needs to be reflected on the document. For transparency, all versions of the consent documents for embryos donated to Professor Niakan's research project are provided here. Clinic names may be redacted.
  • Patients undergoing fertility treatment would be given the information and consent forms by their clinic, to allow them to consider in an informed way the option of donating surplus embryos.



Claudia Gerri, Afshan McCarthy, Gregorio Alanis- Lobato, Andrej Demtschenko, Alexandre Bruneau, Sophie Loubersac, Norah M E Fogarty, Daniel Hampshire, Kay Elder, Phil Snell, Leila Christie, Laurent David, Hilde Van de Velde, Ali A Fouladi-Nashta, Kathy K Niakan. Initiation of a conserved trophectoderm program in human, cow and mouse embryos (2020). Nature Nov;587(7834):443-447. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2759-x. Epub 2020 Sep 23.


Gregorio Alanis-Lobato, Jasmin Zohren, Afshan McCarthy, Norah M E Fogarty, Nada Kubikova, Emily Hardman, Maria Greco, Dagan Wells, James M A Turner, Kathy K Niakan. Frequent loss of heterozygosity in CRISPR-Cas9-edited early human embryos (2021) Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A Jun 1;118(22):e2004832117. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2004832117. Epub 2021 Apr 9.


Sissy E Wamaitha, Katarzyna J Grybel, Gregorio Alanis-Lobato, Claudia Gerri, Sugako Ogushi, Afshan McCarthy, Shantha K Mahadevaiah, Lyn Healy, Rebecca A Lea, Miriam Molina-Arcas, Liani G Devito, Kay Elder, Phil Snell, Leila Christie, Julian Downward, James M A Turner, Kathy K Niakan. IGF1-mediated human embryonic stem cell self-renewal recapitulates the embryonic niche (2020) Nat Commun Feb 7;11(1):764. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-14629-x.


Norah M E Fogarty, Afshan McCarthy, Kirsten E Snijders, Benjamin E Powell, Nada Kubikova, Paul Blakeley, Rebecca Lea, Kay Elder, Sissy E Wamaitha, Daesik Kim, Valdone Maciulyte, Jens Kleinjung, Jin-Soo Kim, Dagan Wells, Ludovic Vallier , Alessandro Bertero, James M A Turner, Kathy K Niakan. Genome editing reveals a role for OCT4 in human embryogenesis (2017) Nature Oct 5;550(7674):67-73. doi: 10.1038/nature24033. Epub 2017 Sep 20.


Louise A Hyslop, Paul Blakeley, Lyndsey Craven, Jessica Richardson, Norah M E Fogarty, Elpida Fragouli, Mahdi Lamb, Sissy E Wamaitha, Nilendran Prathalingam, Qi Zhang, Hannah O'Keefe, Yuko Takeda, Lucia Arizzi, Samer Alfarawati, Helen A Tuppen, Laura Irving, Dimitrios Kalleas, Meenakshi Choudhary, Dagan Wells, Alison P Murdoch, Douglass M Turnbull, Kathy K Niakan, Mary Herbert. Towards clinical application of pronuclear transfer to prevent mitochondrial DNA disease (2016) Nature Jun 16;534(7607):383-6. doi: 10.1038/nature18303. Epub 2016 Jun 8.


Paul Blakeley, Norah M E Fogarty, Ignacio del Valle, Sissy E Wamaitha, Tim Xiaoming Hu, Kay Elder, Philip Snell, Leila Christie, Paul Robson, Kathy K Niakan. Defining the three cell lineages of the human blastocyst by single-cell RNA-seq (2015) Development Sep 15;142(18):3151-65. doi: 10.1242/dev.123547. Epub 2015 Aug 20.


Sissy E Wamaitha, Ignacio del Valle, Lily T Y Cho, Yingying Wei, Norah M E Fogarty, Paul Blakeley, Richard I Sherwood, Hongkai Ji, Kathy K Niakan. Gata6 potently initiates reprograming of pluripotent and differentiated cells to extraembryonic endoderm stem cells (2015) Genes Dev Jun 15;29(12):1239-55. doi: 10.1101/gad.257071.114.


Marta N Shahbazi, Agnieszka Jedrusik, Sanna Vuoristo, Gaelle Recher, Anna Hupalowska, Virginia Bolton, Norah N M Fogarty, Alison Campbell, Liani Devito, Dusko Ilic, Yakoub Khalaf, Kathy K Niakan, Simon Fishel, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz. Self-organization of the human embryo in the absence of maternal tissues (2016) Nat Cell Biol Jun;18(6):700-708. doi: 10.1038/ncb3347. Epub 2016 May 4.