A Chinese scientist is creating waves in the global medical community by claiming that he has helped to create the first gene-edited babies.
Researcher He Jiankui, from Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology, recently told the Associated Press that twin girls born this month have DNA code that was edited using CRISPR technology.
Editing the genetic information has been possible for a few years now, however it CRISPR technology that has made gene editing faster, more precise and easier than ever before. What’ different about Mr. He’s case is that researchers, thus far, haven’t claimed to have actually created genetically engineered babies due to regulatory restrictions.
Although the claims made in the aforementioned Associated Press report are yet to be independently verified, it would be a pivotal moment in the development of CRISPR and medical science as a whole if they’re found to be true.
They’ve already attracted a huge amount of controversy. "I feel a strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example," Mr. He told the Associated Press. "Society will decide what to do next."
He added that he wasn’t looking to cure any disease with his gene editing, however, his team managed to turn off the CCR5 gene in the twins, which was done to protect them from the risk of contracting HIV later in life.
Some people are born with this genetic mutation naturally. It also offers protection against smallpox and cholera. Mr. He further claimed that he had disabled the CCR5 gene in embryos for seven couples during IVF treatments, with a single successful pregnancy occurring to date.
The scientific world is outraged at Mr. He and his team due to the research being carried out before society is ethically prepared for it. Another bone of contention is the fact that he announced his findings in the press, as opposed to a peer-reviewed journal.
Hannah Brown, an expert in reproductive biology and Chief Science Storyteller at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, believes that the type of gene editing allegedly conducted by Mr. He was unnecessary.
"While completely unsubstantiated, the reports today of the birth of the first genome-edited babies (twin girls) are hugely alarming," Brown told the Australian Science Media Centre.
"The implications for cowboy-style "researchers" taking experiments into their own hands risk damaging the already fragile relationship between science and society."
One of the fundamental problems with CRISPR is that there’s no way of knowing whether it’s safe, or what effects its usage will have on future generations. "The field of gene-editing is advancing rapidly, but isn't without concern," Brown added.
"For each research story of hope, another is published providing evidence of off-target effects, and large deletions incorporated at the cut site, all of which suggest that research needs to proceed cautiously. CRISPR-based gene editing is very much still in the experimental stage, particularly in human embryos."
In essence, CRISPR is a gene editing technique that works in a similar fashion to cutting and pasting in a word processor. It allows scientists to edit precise parts of the human DNA code. It has incredible potential to eliminate diseases and superbugs, but there are also concerns about possible side effects, such as unwanted genetic mutations.
As a result, many in the scientific community want the use of CRISPR to be tightly regulated and carefully controlled. Tests have already been carried out on human embryos, but these were only allowed to grow until they were a few days old. Editing embryos that lead to a full birth has never actually been done before – until now (allegedly).
If this controversial milestone really has been passed, then concern turns to whether or not it will open the door to “designer babies” – babies that are made to measure using parents’ exact specifications in order to determine their IQ and what they will look like.
"It was always inevitable that genetic modification of humans would begin. My fear is that this has been rushed through without due consideration of the consequences, both for human health and for society," Channa Jayasena, a clinical senior lecturer in reproductive endocrinology at Imperial College London told the Science Media Centre.
"Will this open the door for 'designer babies' who have been selected for specific physical and behavioral traits? We urgently need an international treaty to regulate gene editing of humans, so that we can decide if and when it is safe to use."
The identity of the so-called CRISPR twins, as well as that of their parents, remains unknown, but official documents show that the research was legally cleared to proceed in Shenzhen. Nevertheless, we’re still far from knowing whether Mr. He really successfully gene-edited and disabled the CCR5 gene as he claims.
If his claims are confirmed somewhere down the line, the world will collectively have to decide what to do next.
Images by Deposit Photos.