Imagine a world in which scientists could eliminate illnesses and diseases before people are even born.
Now, also, imagine what it would be like if parents could choose the physical characteristics, intelligence, and personality of their children. Is that a world you would want to live in?
Recently, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, released a video claiming to have successfully performed an experiment to create genetically engineered babies. The procedure, however, has raised concerns in the scientific community, with many calling it "irresponsible". The hospital and university where Jiankui conducted the research in secrecy have denied any role in it. China has suspended Jiankui’s research and opened an investigation into his practices.
What is Genetic Engineering?
As you know, genes determine the characteristics of an organism. There are genes that encode for hair color, height, intelligence, and even freckles. Gene expression is also responsible for the function of individual cells. The genes of cells in the heart are expressed differently from the genes of cells that are part of the skin.
In 1987, researchers discovered what would later be coined CRISPR, a tool that allows researchers to manipulate the expression of genes in cells, and therefore the characteristics of an organism. CRISPR occurs naturally in bacteria. When a virus invades a bacterium, the bacterium creates markers for the virus which are known as CRISPR arrays. If the virus invades again, CRISPR arrays help the bacterium to recognize and disable it. Bacteria disable viruses by cutting up their DNA using an enzyme called Cas9.
Researchers use this "molecular scissors" system to perform extremely accurate DNA surgery to cut out bad pieces of DNA and insert DNA segments. For more on CRISPR, read our article here.
What Did He Jiankui Do?
Jiankui claims to have used CRISPR and Cas9 to turn off expression of the CCR5, a protein that plays a part in our immune system. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that destroys cells that fight disease and infection. HIV is transmitted through certain bodily fluids, including the blood that passes between mother and child during pregnancy. The HIV virus binds to the CCR5 protein, and hence turning the CCR5 off would prevent the virus from infecting cells.
Jiankui attempted this gene surgery on embryos from seven couples of which the father was infected with HIV. His attempts supposedly resulted in two successful pregnancies, one resulting in Lulu and Nana and another still in its early stages.
Why Is This Controversial?
While genetic engineering of embryos could help prevent and eliminate lethal diseases, there are serious concerns about its misuse. Scientists agree that it should not be used to enhance physical or intellectual characteristics of children, as this would put children of families that cannot afford genetic engineering at a disadvantage.
Besides, there could be unintended consequences of the gene editing process. With regard to Jiankui's procedure, it is quite possible that the lack of CCR5 protein could make the babies susceptible to other diseases. Scientists say there are others ways of screening the embryos for HIV that do not require surgery, and there are medications to treat HIV if one of the babies does develop it -- and hence, such a procedure is unethical.
CRISPR gene-editing is illegal in the United States, most of Europe and China. Genetic engineering is a new field and strict safety regulations and complete transparency would be necessary for future research in the field. What are your opinions on genetic engineering? Do you think it is a good idea to create "designer" babies with traits that we want to see?
Sources: Washington Post, CNN, Technologyreview, NIH, CDC, hiv.va.gov