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Secrets of our first seven days

What exactly is gene editing? Why is it important in medical research? Last year, developmental biologist Dr Kathy Niakan got the first ever licence to carry out gene editing in very early human embryos using a new technique called CRISPR-Cas9. She explains all.

Tell us about your research and what you’re trying to find out?

Our lab, at The Francis Crick Institute in London, is really interested in understanding how human embryos develop during the first seven days of development.

We all start off as a fertilised egg, which then divides to form two cells, then four cells, eight cells and so on until it forms a structure called a blastocyst at around day six. At some point around the eight cell stage we think that some of these cells are being set aside. These few cells divide to produce about 20 clumps of cells which go on to become the embryo, while the vast majority of the other cells will be set aside to form the placenta and yolk sac.

What fascinates us is, how does this happen? From this group of cells which all had an equal chance of becoming either an embryo or placenta and yolk sac, how are these cells set aside? They’ve all inherited the same DNA blueprint, it’s just that they are reading that DNA differently. So we want to know what is the key gene that ‘flips the switch’ and decides their fate?

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Why patient involvement in research matters

Jane Dunnage was forced to give up work due to the rare autoimmune condition systemic lupus erythematosus, also known as SLE or lupus. After 10 years of being a Trustee for the charity LUPUS UK she now leads patient involvement for the MRC-funded MASTERPLANS* study. She explains why research needs the patient voice.

Jane Dunnage (Image copyright: D Boyraz)

Jane Dunnage (Image credit: Derya Boyraz)

I had to give up my job in communications about 20 years ago because of the symptoms of lupus. It was affecting my eyes and my joints, and the fatigue was extremely disabling. I found it impossible to carry on working.

But it was another four or five years before I was actually diagnosed. I became a ‘pass the parcel’ around different consultants and departments for a year. Then somebody at long last recognised the link between the wide-ranging symptoms and said, “I think you have lupus”.

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