Biotechnology Genetics

What Chinese CRISPR Babies mean for the Scientific World?

He Jiankui CRISPR babies
  • For the past few years, CRISPR is in the limelight in the scientific communities. Recently everyone is looking at CRISPR with very suspicious eyes. Because in November 2018, CRISPR was used on humans, resulting in the creation of first CRISPR Babies.
  • Before the creation of these CRISPR babies, CRISPR was considered dangerous because it was believed that one day it would be used to edit humans and human embryos. Also, for being used without any regulation, in an unwanted way. Now it happened, just as it was expected.

What is the news?

In November 2018, a scientist named He Jiankui from Southern University of science and technology, China, announced that he has successfully created first ever genetically edited embryos. According to him the CRISPR Babies are now healthy and are twin girls, he named them lulu and nana and were born on 8 November 2018.

The news created an uproar throughout the world. Following this news, Chinese officials announced that they have no connection with He’s work. The news was highly frowned upon by everyone. Scientific community condemned it and wanted an investigation regarding this claim, to check whether this is true or not.

 

CRISPR Babies
In this Oct. 9, 2018 photo, an embryo receives a small dose of Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA in a sperm injection microscope in a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong province. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

What are the claims?

He Jiankui claimed that his work involved several couples, in which he was successful in one pregnancy. The male was infected with HIV-1, while the female was normal.

He took their sperms and eggs and did in-vitro fertilization. After it, he genetically edited it, by CRISPR gene-editing tool, in which he deleted a gene called CCR5. The CCR5 gene makes a protein, which is recognized by the HIV-1 virus, and it then infects the cell on which this specific protein is present. According to his claimed that these babies are HIV-1 resistant.

Why is it controversial?

First, He’s has stepped into uncharted territory, where no one dared to work before. Secondly, now the chances are high that others will also follow into his footsteps and will work on genetically edited embryos.

Lastly, if things uncheck, soon people will start to edit their embryos. It will give rise to a new controversy, which is “designer babies.” The term means that people will design their babies, the way they want, deleting unwanted characteristics and adding desirable features.

 

Crispr babies
Zhou Xiaoqin adjusts a monitor showing a video feed of Qin Jinzhou moving a fine glass pipette containing Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA to an embryo under a microscope at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong province.

Human Gene Editing

  • March 2015 – Chinese researchers become the first to edit genes in a human embryo.
  • June 2016 – He Jiankui launches a project to edit genes in human embryos, with the goal of live birth.
  • March 2017 – He starts recruiting couples (each with an HIV-positive father) for the experiments.
  • Early November 2018 – Gene-edited twin girls are reportedly born, and a second pregnancy with a third gene-edited embryo is established.
  • 25–26 November 2018 – The MIT Technology Review reveals the existence of the research programme; the Associated Press quickly goes public with the story of the girls’ birth.
  • 28 November 2018 –  He offers details about his work at a gene-editing summit in Hong Kong and is roundly criticized.
  • November–December 2018 – China’s National Health Commission orders an investigation into He’s work.
  • January 2019 – He is censured by the Guangdong health ministry and fired from his university.
  • 18 March 2019 – A World Health Organization committee will meet to set guidelines for human gene editing.
  • August 2019 – Third gene-edited baby expected.

What are the views of other scientists on CRISPR BABIES?

Because of He’s work, scientists across the globe came together, and almost all of them showed their concerns about his work. A group of about 100 scientists across the world wrote in a letter that they condemn his action. Besides, by doing this experiment, He’s created an example, and now there are chances that soon people will follow his suit.

“It’s unconscionable, an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, who is a gene-editing expert from the University of Pennsylvania.

While another scientist, Dr. Eric Topol a geneticist from Scripps Research Institute said, “This is far too premature; we’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal.”

Explore more: Cloned Gene-Edited Monkeys with Horrifying Results

Fyodor Urnov, a gene-editing scientist from Altius institute for biomedical sciences, after reviewing the Chinese documents said, “While incomplete, they do show that this effort aims to produce a human with altered genes”.

Further, he expressed his concern regarding He Jiankui’s CRISPR Babies actions, “regret and concern over the fact that gene editing—a powerful and useful technique—was put to use in a setting where it was unnecessary. It is a hard-to-explain foray into human germ-line genetic engineering that may overshadow in the mind of the public a decade of progress in gene editing of adults and children to treat existing disease”.

Feng Zhang, a geneticist, who worked extensively on CRISPR, said, “Not only do I see this as risky, but I am also deeply concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding this trial,”

“If true, this experiment is monstrous. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer, this experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit.” Prof Julian Savulescu, an ethics expert at the University of Oxford, told the BBC.

However, while scientists were against He’s, there were also scientists who were in favor of He’s work, among one of them is a famed geneticist, George Church, he said while defending gene editing for HIV and He Jiankui’s goal for this experiment, “a major and growing public health threat, I think this is justifiable,”

 

George Church Crispr babies
Geneticist George Church on why gene-edited CRISPR babies aren’t such a bad thing.

Ethical Concern about CRISPR BABIES:

First CRISPR itself was a huge concern, because for its potential misuse in gene editing.  Now due to He’s work, everyone is of the view, that if this matter is left unchecked, soon people will lean towards making designer babies. Where the wealthy couple will decide what sort of characters they want and they do not want in their offspring’s.

While designer babies are one side of the problem. If these gene editing tools are left unsupervised, people can even begin to experiment in their own homes, and still, people are doing. There should a check balance on them.

Biotech terrorism is another problem associated with gene editing, and now that He has shown what can be done with CRISPR. It is no wonder that soon someone will work on a deadlier pathogenic strain and may even end up releasing it into nature. Therefore, killings thousands, if not millions of people.

From He Jiankui perspective, his defense:

According to He Jiankui, he said that AIDs is one of a growing issue in China and it is highly stigmatized. He further mentioned that he had taken consent from multiple couples and they all agreed, but later one couple dropped out of the study. All the couples comprised of HIV positive fathers and HIV negative mothers.

He’s also said that he plans to monitor the twins for the next 18 years and that they are born healthy, without any complication.

In his videos, He’s further said that the reason for him choosing the CCR5 gene is that, from research and literature it has been proved that this gene aids in HIV infection. And also in some individuals, who were found to be resistant to HIV because they had mutated CCR5.

He also included the fact that he has submitted his work to an undisclosed journal for review. Moreover, he apologized for this unexpected leakage of CRISPR Babies news. He wanted to do further research and then publish his detailed work, so that no one would have any doubts and would understand his goals.

What is next?

Even though He Jiankui did this experiment, and we end up with genetically edited twins. But still, no one can argue the fact that gene editing is a very potent way of treating various problems in the near future.

For example, work is being down in oncology, and scientists are trying to delete mutated genes and insert correct genes in tumors, hoping to find a better, faster yet effective solution for cancer.

Similarly, several deadly genetic diseases can also be cured, by the application of gene editing. Not only genetic disorders but also viral disease and bacterial infections, which are currently resistant to already available antibiotics, can also be treated by gene editing.

Despite this incident, gene editing still has a promising future, if it is in safe hands.

Conclusion

He Jiankui on human embryos is unethical, and still, more work is needed to found out the effectiveness of gene editing. According to some studies, CRISPR also induced numerous off-target mutations.

Also, before coming towards editing embryos, should be our last resort. We should first check and test our other available options. Moreover, gene editing should not be taken lightly. It is something very serious, with very dangerous side effects, if done incompetently or if fallen into the wrong hands.

 

Explore More: Scientists find new and smaller CRISPR gene editor: CasX

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