A Chinese scientist has shaken the world with an alarming revelation that he was successful in carrying out gene-editing on human embryos. Twin girls were born to the couple who consented to the gene-altering experiment. The girls’ genes were edited using the CRISPR technique but is it safe?
He Jiankui was the scientist who carried out this remarkable yet terrifying feat. He has submitted his works and reports for peer reviewing by fellow scientists but before his works could be reviewed, he announced the birth to the world. It is unknown if the couple were fully informed of the risks involved in the experiment.
The couple volunteered to take part in an H.I.V. elimination experiment. The father carried H.I.V. whereas the mother did not. He used the CRISPR editing to incapacitate the CCR5 gene in the embryos and implanted them afterward. According to the information available, the couple knew about the experiment being carried out but were told that the team would not be responsible for any collateral damage.
People born with disabled CCR5 are resistant to H.I.V. but the data presented by Mr. He shows that he could only disable the CCR5s in one of the girls ‘Nana’. The other girl ‘Lulu’ was not so fortunate and only one of the copies of CCR5 could be disabled in her genetic information.
With only one of the CCR5 copies disabled, Lulu has only limited protection, if any, against H.I.V.
Collateral damage is the first thing when CRISPR comes to the mind. In the past gene editing with CRISPR has gone wrong with unpredictable results being produced.
Altering the genetic information in an embryo means altering the whole DNA of the individual. This might seem simple but it is a huge responsibility. The altered DNA will be a part of the children and when they grow up it’ll be passed on to the next generations.
CRISPR technique is not regarded as totally safe. there have been cases where mosaicism was reported. It is a state where some cells of the body have a different number of chromosomes than the other.
Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a renowned geneticist and a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania reviewed the data presented by Mr. He and was worried about the outcome. She said, “there’s clear evidence of mosaicism” in the edited embryos of both twins. “I was so furious. This would have been disturbing anyway — gene-edited babies. It made it a hundred times worse knowing that he had totally mosaic embryos. It’s as if you took the embryos and dipped them in acid and said ‘You know what, I’m just going to go ahead with the implantation anyway.’ It’s not that much different.”
The couple has signed up for an AIDS vaccine project and were not aware of the full risks involved with the disabling of CCR5.
Scientists throughout the globe are confused and worried about the step taken by He Jiankui. If the experiment turns out to be unsuccessful it could mean the end of gene editing globally. The director of National Institutes of Health, Mr. Francis Collins said, “Should such epic scientific misadventures proceed, a technology with enormous promise for prevention and treatment of disease will be overshadowed by justifiable public outrage, fear, and disgust,”
The biggest fear right now would be the fear of the unknown. The world has no evidence that He actually carried out the experiment and all the information available is provided by him which could easily be manipulated to favor him. There is no information available as to which other genes were altered and what the outcome is.
While the experiment seems to some as a step in the right direction for gene editing others are worried what the future hold should this experiment be successful. If this technology is made privately available, we might be introducing genetic inequality into the world ourselves.