Dealing With the First Genetically-Edited Birth

Dealing With the First Genetically-Edited Birth

By Shaffin Siddiqui

On November 25 of 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced one of most seminal  and controversial moments in the history of genetics: the birth of the first genetically-edited babies. According to an early report by the MIT Technology Review, the two twins, “Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies.” Their birth, not only a biological landmark, has become the center of tremendous ethical debate.

Dr. He’s experimental clinical trial set out to edit the gene CCR5, which codes for the protein that allows HIV to infect human cells. With the objective of disabling this gene using CRISPR gene-editing technology in order to create HIV resistant babies, Dr. He recruited couples with an HIV partner to in vitro fertilize their sperm and eggs. He then genetically altered the resulting embryo, an act that is still illegal in many countries today, and re-implanted the edited embryo into the mother’s womb. Lulu and Nana were the first to be born of in these trials, with a third baby expected to be born this year.

Dr. He’s is facing the ire of the scientific community. While he has submitted his research for publication in scientific journals (who have yet to approve of his work), his experiments were clandestinely conducted without the “permission” of the global scientific community. Since his announcement, the university where he conducted his work fired him for unethical behavior.

On the 28th of November at a gene-editing summit in Hong Kong, Dr. He elaborated on the details of his experiment before numerous geneticists, many of whom reproached Dr. He for his actions. By editing the embryo (a form of germline gene-editing), Dr. He changed the genes in every cell of the resulting fetus. These alterations will be inherited by the children’s progeny, thereby changing the entire human gene pool permanently – an act that many consider to be far too early. Moreover, CRISPR technology may inadvertently cause altering of genes besides the target ones, intensifying the stakes of Dr. He’s experiment and the reputation of genetic editing as a whole even more. The risks involved with such an alteration are far too great and outweigh the benefits for a disease like HIV which can be treated effectively other ways. CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna reproached Hes, stating “this work reinforces the urgent need to confine the use of gene editing in human embryos to settings where a clear unmet medical need exists, and where no other medical approach is a viable option, as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences.”

As to whether or not Dr. He’s experiments proved successful in modifying the CCR5 and creating HIV resistant individuals, no physical evidence has been produced and may not be for years. Nevertheless, one thing is for certain: Dr. He has pushed the field of genetics into long uncharted territory in which many of the scientific community have been hesitant to wander. Whether those concerns will materialize remains to be seen.


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