I think I first came across the news on Twitter. It must’ve been a Monday morning as I was scrolling through my home page. At first I thought this can’t be true. I laughed at how ridiculous the news was. But my laughter soon changed to concern as I began to learn more of the unprecedented event that had occurred.
On the 25th November, He Jiankui (at the time a scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology, Shenzhen, China) announced that he had genetically edited human embryos that were then implanted back into the mother who later gave birth to two girls, Lulu and Nana. The genomes of these girls were manipulated and the modifications can be passed on if the girls are capable of pregnancy.
The “designer baby” line has quite clearly been stepped over. So why, 4 months on, are not more people talking about it?
What did He do?
Now normally when advances/discoveries are made in science, they are written up and published in journals (after they have been peer-reviewed and analysed by other scientists). However, He instead made his announcement via YouTube, where he somewhat vaguely explains what he did –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th0vnOmFltc .
The announcement made by He, was that he had edited a gene in human embryos that were brought to term using CRISPR-Cas9, a technology developed from a bacteria that is revolutionising basic science research and has the potential to improve agriculture and pest control.
The gene in question was CCR5 (Ryder, 2018). CCR5 codes for a receptor protein that is implicated in the uptake of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in cells. A naturally seen mutation of this gene, disabling it, is reported to protect against the contraction of HIV. As the father was HIV positive, there was a chance any offspring of the couple could also contract the disease. But, the modifications made using CRISPR in Lulu and Nana do not match this naturally seen mutation.
He believes what he did was right. He believes the procedure worked safely.
Sure, having the chance of HIV contraction reduced is a good thing. But there are other ways the development of HIV in the girls could’ve be prevented. Genome editing wasn’t necessary. And safely? If the current evidence of the reported genetic changes are correct, the mutations made are different from that seen before – who knows what the consequences may be. With a third baby on the way, we can only hope that they will all be unharmed by the modifications made and that no unforeseen side effects occur.
Now, I do not know the full details of those involved and what exactly was done during these events, but my aim here is to raise awareness so that discussions can continue be made over how to proceed, whilst the development of safer CRISPR technologies are developed where we understand what the consequences of editing are.
How can I learn more?
The best way to join the conversation is to get educated on what was done. There are many great sources to understand the basics of CRISPR as a gene-editing technology and to uncover more about its potential here;
(i) Written by a CRISPR pioneer, “A crack in creation: The new power to control evolution” ~Jennifer Doudna & Samuel Sternberg, is a must read
(ii) For a detailed account of the currently understood mutations created by He in Lulu and Nana Ryder, S. P. (2018). #CRISPRbabies: Notes on a Scandal. The CRISPR Journal. https://doi.org/10.1089/crispr.2018.29039.spr (a pdf can be found here; https://innovativegenomics.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Ryder-2018.pdf )
(iii) For a more up to date on the potential use of CRISPR beyond humans check out “Hacking the code of life: How gene editing will rewrite our futures” ~ Nessa Carey (2019)
(iv) I give my own explanation of the technology here; https://asheekeyscienceblog.com/2017/09/07/crispr-just-got-snappy/