Welcome back!!! I haven’t quit yet 🙂 It’s time for another installment of the Labrat’s Digest, a periodic recap of some of the coolest (and weirdest) science news from around the world. This week we’ll be focusing on one of the most controversial bits of science news that’s been dominating the science news: the creation of CRISPR-Edited babies. So let’s dive in!
Before you begin, you should know that I talk a lot about a technique called CRISPR in this post. If you want to learn some more about CRISPR and how it works, check out my previous posts on CRISPR and the patent debate associated with it. This will be especially helpful if you’re new to this blog, or you just have no idea what CRISPR is…
So what’s all this hulabaloo about gene edited babies now?
The place is Hong Kong. The time? Just about a week ago.
Scientists from around the world were gathered at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. This is an annual conference for researchers to gather and discuss the progress being made in human germline editing, and some of the ethical considerations associated with editing the human genome.
Enter He Jiankui, a genome-editing researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in China’s Guangdong province. He was one of the attendees at the conference, and he had a startling announcement to make:
He Jiankui claims to have helped create the world’s first genome-edited babies — twin girls, who were born this month.
Yes, you read that right. The world’s first gene-edited HUMAN BABIES are here. Ladies and gentlemen (and Orphan Black fans…hey!), we have entered the reality of science fiction.
He’s experiment aimed to equip the babies with HIV immunity. He used the CRISPR technique to edit embryos to disable the genetic pathway that HIV uses to infect cells, then he impregnated a woman with these embryos. The pregnancy resulted in the birth of twin girls, Lulu and Nana. He goes on to talk about how successful it’s all been in this handy dandy YouTube video:
Now this all sounds too good to be true. Amazing even. Revolutionary science, a cure for HIV? The scientific community should be celebrating!
Wellllll…..not so much.
Immediately after He’s announcement, alarm bells began to sound throughout the scientific community. In fact, this one experiment has create ripple waves of confusion, anger and outright disgust among scientists worldwide. BUT WHY IS EVERYONE SO MAD?
1. No Peer-Reviewed Study
For starters, other than his dramatic announcement and neat little video, there is no scientific evidence to support the claims that He is making. He has published no research (if you’ve been paying attention to these posts, you know how important that is), his university has distanced himself from the “study”, and no one has examined the babies to know if He is even telling the truth.
A number of scientists have analysed the data He did provide, i.e. the genetic sequences in question, and they’ve all agreed that it seems like some genetic editing DID take place. But without being able to independently analyse the babies’ DNA, we can’t confirm the science for sure.
2. But if it IS true, it’s pretty unethical…
The reason that the scientific community is in uproar is because genome editing experiments like this are still in their infancy. Science is not yet at the place where we can be actively experimenting on changing the human genome, because even the slightest error can have devastating and fatal consequences which can be passed down for generations. (Seriously, if you’ve never watched Orphan Black, now is the time! If you do, remember how all the clones ended up with an error that gave them an incurable degenerative disease and a shorter life span??? Yep, same idea. )
Additionally, He claimed to create a mutation on the CCR5 gene by deleting a 32-DNA-letter long sequence known as delta-32. This deletion is SUPPOSED to inactivate the CCR5 gene and disable the HIV infection pathway.
However, other scientists who have looked at the data have realized that the CCR5 deletions that He claimed to introduce into the babies’ cells by CRISPR gene editing are not identical to the delta-32 mutation seen in nature.
In other words, He Jiankui created a mutation that has never been seen before in nature, and he’s done this on actual living human beings.
This is not how science is done. Techniques like this have to be repeatedly tested in vitro (in a test tube or in non-viable embryos) before someone should even think about trying it on humans. Genome editing techniques are so prone to error, and it literally only takes the smallest tiniest mistake to cause a fatal mutation. AND, because edits to the genome end up being passed on to children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren…and so on. Before you know it, we could have a whole new genetic disorder affecting half the world.
3. This whole thing was pretty unneccessary.
The truth is, ethical considerations aside, this new development in HIV research wasn’t exactly….needed. While HIV immunity would be a great thing to have, according to genome-editing scientist Fyodor Urnov, at the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences in Seattle:
“There are many safe and effective ways to use genetics to protect people from HIV that do not involve editing an embryo’s genes. There is, at present, no unmet medical need that embryo editing addresses.”
Yep, so it’s kind of a big waste of time. The risk far outweighs the reward here, and there are many other GENETIC conditions (HIV isn’t one by the way) such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia, Down’s syndrome, for which this type of research would make a lot more sense.
Even worse, He’s logic doesn’t even seem to make sense! In the words of Paula Cannon, who studies HIV at the University of Southern California:
“Some strains of HIV do not even use this protein to enter cells, they use another protein called CXCR4. Even people who are naturally CCR5-negative are not completely resistant to HIV because they could be infected by a CXCR4 strain.”
In other words, the science just doesn’t add up.
So when will we know what’s really going on?
I hate to keep referencing Orphan Black (not really) but it’s a great example to explain this point. In the show, it wasn’t until the clones were in their 20s and 30s that they began to show symptoms of a genetic disorder. And this is pretty much how this type of science goes.
It’s going to take years and years and years of research and observation to see what effects, if any, the gene-editing has on the twins. And who knows? In that time, Lulu and Nana might have babies of their own, and pass along a devastating genetic defect to one of their kids.
I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but I TOLD YOU SO. I’ve been speaking about the need for regulating CRISPR research for yeaaars. And here we are, with a shining example of what can happen when we let the wheels of science run wild without any ethical considerations.
Another hurdle in determining what’s really happening is that, for their own good, the real identities of Lulu, Nana and their parents must be kept confidential. So it’s pretty hard to evaluate the progress of the children if no one (except He of course) even knows who they are! But making their identities public comes with its own set of ethical concerns. One workaround that has been proposed is that He supplies anonymous samples from the babies to independent researchers for them to do their own analysis. No one knows yet what the solution (if any) is going to be.
What happens to He now?
Well since his dramatic announcement, things haven’t been going too great for He. Right after he made the announcement, China’s science ministry ordered He to stop doing any science whatsoever. Lock up shop, and stop the work. In the meantime, an investigation has been launched by the government of Guangdong, and He’s university basically wants nothing to do with him or the research.
This, along with the fact that He kept his work a secret until unveiling a (clearly premeditated) extravagant PR release for his work, has him on the bad side of pretty much everyone in science.
We probably won’t have any more information until the investigation is complete, but in the meantime, the scientific community has plenty to think about.
What does this mean for the future of human genetic editing? How do we prevent this from happening again? Is it already happening – are scientists elsewhere experimenting with gene editing in humans? Where do we draw the line between ethics and scientific development? What regulations should be put in place to govern this type of science? Do we even need regulations?
All in all, this is sure to a be a hot-topic in science for a long time to come.