World’s First Gene-Edited Babies Created By Chinese Scientist Rekindle Debate On Rewriting Human DNA

It was meant to be a scientific bombshell, but instead the world’s first gene-edited babies, created by Chinese scientist He Jiankui have been thrust into controversy. The Chinese researcher who, along with his group, edited the gene embryos of two twin girls Lulu and Nana so that they will not contract HIV. Jiankui’s scientific breakthrough has once again sparked the debate on genetic modification of human DNA or eugenics — placed under ban by UNESCO and International Bioethics Committee (IBO) since it raises serious concerns about future generations, especially if the editing of the human genome is applied to the germline and the introduction of hereditary modifications.

Gene therapy, dubbed as one of the most promising undertakings in science can mark a watershed moment in the history of mankind, however the move can have serious ethical consequences as well. IBC panel of experts believe that interventions on the human genome should only be allowed for preventive, diagnostic reasons and without having any serious modifications for the descendants which could jeopardize the inherent and dignity of all human beings and eugenics.”

In an open letter, scientists said there was ‘no justification’ for genetically modifying humans and claimed it could lead to a world where inequality and discrimination were ‘inscribed onto the human genome.’

Human Testing Gained Prominence In 1970s

Gene therapy has been quite well known since the 1970s but it is only recently that scientists have developed technology which can snip out parts of genetic code. “Once such superhumans appear, there will be significant political problems with unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete,” Stephen Hawking had written in his last last set of writings, “Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings who are improving at an ever-increasing rate.” When even great minds like Hawking has warned about the negatives of gene editing, is this technology really a safe initiative at all?

Gene Editing Can Rewrite DNA & Build a Disease Free World

The main objective of Jiankui’s gene editing research team was to make an HIV rendering gene called CCR5 perish. The embryo was modified before it was transferred to the female uterus. These embryos were mixtures of edited and unedited cells, termed as ‘mosaics’. The CRISPR machinery was injected when the embryos were just single cells, but it seems that, in these two embryos, it didn’t make repairs until after they had replicated their DNA. So when they divvied up, some cells inherited unrepaired DNA. The study claimed to use samples from 400 embryos in total for interventions. The samples would be destroyed after use. Apart from the university and the hospital, sponsors of the project included two hospitals in Hunan and Henan, and a University in Kunming.

According to the data submitted as a part of the trial, genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing. However, the study highlights a further roadblock to using gene editing to create healthy babies.

The Aftermath Of Gene Editing

The risk that goes in editing an embryo is large and it will forever affect the person’s generations. This area of gene editing is not very well known so if any problems occur, researchers might not be in a position to determine the effect of these procedures before birth. But after a month of this two-year project was launched, the gene editor who’s earned the moniker of being China’s Frankenstein initiated a three-year basic science clinical study related to gene editing on abandoned human embryos in partnership with researchers from Luohu People’s Hospital in Shenzhen, according to the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry, a database affiliated with the World Health Organisation.

Editing this gene may also have an effect on the brain. Research on mice suggests that deleting the gene boosts visual and spatial memory, according to a study. Other researchers at UCLA, including neurology chairman S Thomas Carmichael, are currently conducting a clinical trial using the HIV drug Maraviroc to deprive stroke victims of CCR5, hoping it will boost their recovery. The drug’s success would mean that the human brain can also benefit from deleting the CCR5 gene.

Shenzhen-based Jiankui is under investigation by the University and the Chinese authority. Genetically engineered embryo is prohibited in China under a 2003 ministerial guidance to IVF clinics. It is not clear if this research team got special permission or disregarded the guidance.   

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