The most exciting parts about having children are the surprises that come with them. Parents look forward to finding out the sex, what their baby will look like, how healthy he or she will be, and how tall they will be when they grow up. All of these are welcomed surprises. However, now with modern science and gene editing, parents may be closer to choosing all of these features for themselves.
On Nov. 26, a Chinese scientist revealed that he created the world’s first genetically modified babies—a set of twin girls who were born earlier this month. His claims state that he used CRISPR technology to alter the babies’ DNA for the sake of their health. How so? By editing their genes so they would be resistant to HIV, which is a known problem in China.
The Clinical Trial
With the help of a team of scientists from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, He Jiankui is using the gene-editing tool because HIV, the fear of a smallpox outbreak and cholera are huge problems in China. By eliminating a gene called CCR5 in embryos, the protein doorway which allows these diseases in is now essentially shut. This is a huge development in the medical field and could potentially eliminate these diseases in China and around the world.
In Chinese medical documents posted earlier this month, the team of medical scientists recruited couples for the experiment. Each couple consisted of a male partner who was HIV positive and a female partner who was not. Though the risk of passing the virus to a child is relatively small with proper instruction and precautions, Jiankui still proceeded with the gene editing experiment. Embryos were modified during lab fertilization and then implanted in the women.
When participants entered the trial, they knew what they were getting into and did not have a problem with it. The scientist told everyone participating that this has never been done before and could involve risks.
The Researcher’s Claim
While there is no hard evidence that the twin girls were born using this technology (just Jiankui’s statements), he has created a promotional video claiming that his studies are true. As of now, the parents of the twins have declined to answer any questions about this.
“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” Jiankui told AP. “Society will decide what to do next.”
So, what will society do? Though gene editing was used this time for the sake of immunization, it opens a Pandora’s box of potential applications, many of which go far beyond issues of health and mortality. For example, genetically engineering a baby’s height, how smart they are, and what they look like are now in the loaded genetic deck of cards.
CRISPR and Recent Gene Editing Experiments
CRISPR made headlines in 2015 when Chinese researchers first used the technology to edit human genes. This sparked major controversy, which resulted in human gene-editing being banned in the U.S. and other countries. Since then, CRISPR has been used for different purposes, including using it to collapse the population of malaria-carrying mosquitos.
While CRISPR this time is reportedly being used for good, tailoring human genes could have dire consequences on future gene pools. Being at such an experimental stage, it carries major risks and could be potentially dangerous for humans to carry and later mix edited and unedited cells.
What do you think? Is it ethical to use CRISPR to genetically modify embryos for the sake of health? As we consider the long-term consequences of an edited gene pool, do the benefits outweigh the potential risks? Let us know in the comments below.
Note: This article was edited on Dec. 1 clarifying a statement regarding smallpox.