CRISPR and the future of edited humans

There are already genetic experiments and testing still active around the world, but none never went as far as He Jiankui’s experiment.

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CRISPR and the future of edited humans

Chinese biomedical researcher Dr. Jiankui He, 25 November 2018. Photo credit: WikiImages.

Chinese biomedical researcher Dr. Jiankui He, 25 November 2018. Photo credit: WikiImages.

Chinese biomedical researcher Dr. Jiankui He, 25 November 2018. Photo credit: WikiImages.

Chinese biomedical researcher Dr. Jiankui He, 25 November 2018. Photo credit: WikiImages.

Sarah Bounmixay, Editor

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In October, 2018, a set of twins were born and an ethical argument erupted throughout the scientific realm. The two twin baby girls, named Lulu and Nana, were born with gene-edited DNA, their CCR5 gene was modified with CRISPR, a genetic engineering tool used to edit the proteins in DNA sequences. The main purpose for the genes being modified has been speculated, only Dr. He Jiankui, the man behind the experiment, knows the true reason for its purpose. The debate on such an experiment and about the future still makes headlines in the news recently as the doctor and two of his colleagues are sentenced to jail with large fines. A majority of people agreed with China’s government in punishing the experimentation of human genes hoping it will defer other scientists to not experiment on the evolution and birth of modified, mutated people.

This leads to further questions and possibilities to the future such as being able to have designer babies with the parents being able to choose their desired genes for their child or creating humans specifically for certain job and role in society. As for now, most genetic testing and modifying is for finding treatments and experimental cures to genetic diseases in our time. An article from nature.com talks about a Russian scientist, Denis Rebrivok, who seems to want to attempt the same things as He Jiankui, to eliminate or create a resistance to HIV, but Rebrivok also gives attention to possibly letting deaf couples or deaf mothers have children without the disability of deafness or hard of hearing. Though, he plans on not planting or creating any embryos for impregnation and birth. He is more cautious and is waiting for authority from the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation to approve him for further experimentation and transferring any edited embryos. Still many wonder about the future and how researchers will learn more about the complicated genes of humans and deal with the future usage of CRISPR.

The CCR5 gene is connected with contracting HIV, a sexually transmitted disease which can progress into AIDs. Recently over the years in China, an HIV outbreak had broken out among the people due to a very huge blood donation which used dirty needles and infected blood. Many poor people selling or donating their blood were infected with the disease. This is where the story starts for He Jiankui. He claims to have started the CRISPR experiment for this reason: to change the CCR5 gene and stop the spread of HIV. However, others who’ve worked with him claim that He Jiankui knew more about what he was doing then just making an immunity to the disease, HIV. CCR5, the gene that he modified, is also linked to memory and intelligence in the human DNA. Other doctors and researchers who have reviewed and still observe the baby twins say that the girls could have heightened intelligence and memory, but with a cost. In an NPR article, Rasmus Neilson, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, and his colleagues analyzed 400,000 people’s genetic records, kept in the UK Biobank in Britain, that had the same mutation as LuLu’s and Nana’s modified genes. They found that people with the mutated CCR5 gene may have an immunity to HIV, but have lower immunity to the flu that most likely creates a shorter lifespan. About 21% of those with the  CCR5 mutation are less likely to live to the age of 76. They suggest that the twin baby girls will have a shorter lifespan thanks to their mutation and the evidence the team has collected and analyzed helps back up their claim. Professor Nielsen shared his thoughts saying, “There are many reasons not to make CRISPR babies at this stage. And one of them is the fact that we can’t really predict the effect of the mutations that we induce”.

There are already genetic experiments and testing still active around the world, but none never went as far as He Jiankui’s experiment since many scientists are afraid of what would happen if certain genes are modified, moved, or even taken away from the DNA strand. Not much is known about human genes or DNA to know the consequences of changing it. In an article by NPR talking about the baby twin girl’s future, George Daley, the dean of Harvard Medical School, explains, “This is a lesson of humility. Even when we think we know something about a gene, we can always be surprised and even startled, like in this case, to find out the gene we thought was protective may actually be a problem”. Daley noted that in He Jiankui’s notes, which were released last year, that the researcher didn’t even edit the gene correctly so the modified genes will probably not have the intended immunity to HIV and could have other defects in the twin baby girl’s lives. Such as lower immunity to other diseases or shorter lifespans.

By not knowing enough or how to edit human genes effectively, it is obvious that the science world thinks that CRISPR and humans shall remain separate for today and the future for a long period of time. Experimenting and creating children with mutated DNA has always been left untouched because of how the new changed DNA can affect the mutated person’s life and future generations stemming from their DNA. “It is impossible to predict if the mutations carried by the twin girls will have any effect,” said Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, from the Francis Crick Institute, in an article from BBC. However, some think that the experiments are worth the risks in order to grow and improve on future experiments and methods in the future. “I think we should always be concerned about unanticipated consequences of any new technology, not just gene-editing and embryos,” says George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard, who is less critical of He Jiankui in an NPR article, “Every new technology has unintended consequences. The first monoclonal antibodies were nearly deadly. The first gene therapies were indeed deadly. All kinds of means of transportation were and still are deadly. It’s all about benefits versus risks”. Many still worry that the technology, CRISPR, will be used dangerously and prematurely.

For the present day and the majority of future years or even decades, CRISPR will take a long time and numerous careful examinations to understand. It is too early to be testing and creating living humans from mutated embryos and edited genes. He Jiankui and his products, LuLu and Nana, prove that we are not ready to create and edit human genes even if it is for the right reasons. There needs to be more regulation, authority and supervision over these experiments to ensure we start genetic editing securely and safely. Such as a committee or a group specifically made to handle or even execute the experiments so that the public doesn’t worry about multiple and individual scientists carrying it through themselves.

 

Check out these sources for more information:

Cyranoski, David. “Russian ‘CRISPR-Baby’ Scientist Has Started Editing Genes in Human Eggs with Goal of Altering Deaf Gene.” Nature.com, 18 Oct. 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03018-0.

Cyranoski, David. “What CRISPR-Baby Prison Sentences Mean for Research.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 6 Jan. 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-crispr-baby-prison-sentences-mean-for-research/.

Gallagher, James. “He Jiankui: Baby Gene Experiment ‘Foolish and Dangerous’.” BBC News, BBC, 3 June 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-48496652.

Hollingsworth, Julia, and Isaac Yee. “Chinese Gene-Editing Scientist Jailed for 3 Years.” CNN, Cable News Network, 30 Dec. 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/30/china/gene-scientist-china-intl-hnk/index.html.

Stein, Rob. “2 Chinese Babies With Edited Genes May Face Higher Risk Of Premature Death.” NPR, NPR, 3 June 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/06/03/727957768/2-chinese-babies-with-edited-genes-may-face-higher-risk-of-premature-death.