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Genetically edited twins give birth to scientific, ethical controversies

Genetically edited twins give birth to scientific, ethical controversies

Will Dr. He Jiankui be deemed a rogue scientist or an historic innovator?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th0vnOmFltc

The arrival of twin girls born in China, whose genetic make-up was edited while they were embryos using cutting-edge technology, has given birth to ethical qualms and scientific controversies.

To begin with, more than 100 scientists, most of them in China, have condemned the experimental geneticist’s claims.

In an open letter circulating online, the scientists said the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to edit the genes of human embryos was risky, unjustified and harmed the reputation and development of the biomedical community in China.

The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He Jiankui holds an associate professorship, said it had been unaware of the research project and that Dr He had been on leave without pay since February.

China’s National Health Commission added that it was ‘highly concerned’ and had ordered provincial health officials ‘to immediately investigate and clarify the matter’.

In videos posted online, Dr He has defended what he claimed to have achieved, saying he had performed the gene editing to help protect the babies from future infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Watch:


According to He, Nana and Lulu were born “normal and healthy”. And while there has been now verification of these claims, the technical details revealed by the researcher have convinced many that we may have entered a new stage of human evolution.

The technology used for this process is called CRISPR-Cas9 and was first described in 2012 and 2013.

CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” Those repeats are found in bacteria’s DNA. They are actually copies of small pieces of viruses. Bacteria use them like collections of mug shots to identify bad viruses. Cas9 is an enzyme that can cut apart DNA. Bacteria fight off viruses by sending the Cas9 enzyme to chop up viruses that have a mug shot in the collection.

…This tool can quickly and efficiently tweak almost any gene in any plant or animal. Researchers already have used it to fix genetic diseases in animals, to combat viruses and to sterilize mosquitoes. They have also used it to prepare pig organs for human transplants and to beef up the muscles in beagles.

Some scientists have already expressed deep concerns about the genes edited by He’s team, particularly regarding unintended consequences.

The stated aim of the project was to make individuals immune to HIV by disabling the gene for a protein called CCR5, which is exploited by the virus. However, disabling this gene does not provide complete protection against HIV and the broader consequences of knocking out this gene – which is involved in immune function – are unclear.

The team began by using the CRISPR gene editing method to disable CCR5 in mice and monkeys, He said, and found no health or behavioural issues. But one of the organisers of the summit, Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London, pointed out that immune genes affect the entire body, and that a different mouse study found that deleting CCR5 improved their cognitive abilities.

“Have you inadvertently caused an enhancement?” Lovell-Badge asked He after the talk. The mouse study needed verification, He replied. “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”

At the session of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing where he announced his results, He indicated more was more gene-edited babies are on the way.

When pressed on the number of implantations that have taken place so far, the scientist disclosed that there is another potential pregnancy involving a gene-edited embryo. He hesitated to answer the question because the pregnancy is in an early stage. His research team has so far injected Crispr systems into 31 embryos that have developed to the blastocyst stage. He said 70 percent of them were successfully edited and await further screening and implantation in five remaining couples. But now that’s all on hold. “The trial is paused due to the current situation,” said He.

Many leading researcher in the audience were upset at the ‘secret research’ and fear a backlash.

After Mr He spoke, David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from the California Institute of Technology and a leader of the conference, said the scientist’s work “would still be considered irresponsible” because it did not meet criteria many scientists agreed on several years ago before gene editing could be considered.

Mr Baltimore said: “I personally don’t think that it was medically necessary.”

I will simply point out that relying on the Chinese to “play by the rules” is usually not the best option.

Whether He will be deemed a rogue scientist or an historic innovator will depend on many factors, including how healthy and happy Lulu and Nana become.

Legal Insurrection readers interested in understanding the CRISPR process might find this video interesting.

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Comments

One day in the distant future the humedits will return to Earth and murder their maker.

Oh, he’ll be hailed as a hero, of course– and some of those who condemn him will do so because he allowed the edited embryonic humans to reach birth, rather than properly killing them.

Why the heck is “no human experimentation” apparently a barrier that folks answer with “well, what about THOSE humans?!”

This was always inevitable.

Denying God, and then acting as though they are one, is truly the slipperiest slope of them all. From the first cloning experiments to the present day, the warnings have been clear. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

    The Koran states that refusing treatment is a sin. Doctors and treatment come from Allah.

    Milhouse in reply to bear. | December 3, 2018 at 2:10 am

    If it’s helpful and useful, then yes, we should. If God, not having told us not to, allows us to do it then He must want us to do it.

    Milhouse in reply to bear. | December 3, 2018 at 2:15 am

    All medicine is “acting as though one is God”. Vaccination, penicillin, all of it. If God made someone sick, who are we to make them well, let alone to prevent Him in the first place? The answer, of course, is that we can’t prevent Him or undo His judgment. If He wants someone to be sick then nothing we do will cure them or protect them. If He gives us the ability to heal then he wants us to do it.

18 months ago, I lost my brother who was born with Putz-jeugers syndrome (wiki it, because its rare). The genetics are- you are far more susceptible to many forms of cancer. Pancreatic cancer got him. Few with this condition live much beyond 50.

While every mean, awful, rotten drug addicted son of a bitch will live a long life, this wonderful man died young, leaving behind 2 teenage sons. God is funny eh?

It’s not slippery for me at all. We can and should.

    I have to admit, this is the side I come down on…for the very reason you state. Viewing rare, genetic diseases up close and personal gives one an appreciation for this technique. If done right, it can be as revolutionary as antibiotics.

      Except that he didn’t try to fix a genetic problem.

      He tried to make a human 2.0.

      It’s the difference between healing a broken leg, and chopping a healthy leg off to put a mechanical one in its place.

        I’m no fan of socialist “solutions”- like what these countries do to Downs pregnancies. This is not that.

        I question the HIV application, because its a virus that has been controlled insofar as the first world is concerned.

        There’s hundreds of genetic defects that are worthier targets. Especially considering the frequency of IVF- where the application is real today.

        Are you equating inserting resistance to the entrance of the HIV into the cell to chopping off a leg, and adding an artificial leg?

          tphillip in reply to David Behar. | December 3, 2018 at 9:18 am

          “Are you equating inserting resistance to the entrance of the HIV into the cell to chopping off a leg, and adding an artificial leg?”

          Did he? He’s the only one saying that he did. Everyone is stating, as the best case, we don’t know the ramifications of what he did. And this “geneticist” used two people to experiment on.

          I guess we’ll find out soon enough. But it is cute that you make false equivalences to justify something that is at best unclear.

What always concerns me about things like this are the unintended consequences of such actions. We have always done wonderful things, come up with uses for natural products, or generically altered things for greater productivity or resistances to diseases and so on. Then find out much later the dangers of these moves.

Asbestos was the greatest, used in everything, caused less wear on brakes, could be used in all sorts of building materials and so on… then found how dangerous it was to human life. The same issue is being discovered with plants that are being altered causing problems with bees, with animals dependent on these altered plants, and I can see a day when it is found that these altered foods have caused problems for people generations from now.

The other issues, in making life extend longer, is the population growth, when people are living longer, the population growth expands. We see in countries that are poor, and how it negatively affects those countries. That isn’t to be callus, we value life, but at what cost to humanity in the long run?

What are we creating through changing genomes? What other issues might extend from that? Could we end up releasing new diseases which have greater potential to wipe out the human race?

China does not operate with ethics in most instances. It gives them some more freedoms to do things like this, but what will be the cost to humanity from this? You cannot put the genie back in the bottle once released. It is the opening of Pandora’s box, which may very well contain wonders for the human race but may also cause it to go the other way.

Genetic diseases are terrible to deal with, I fully understand the desire to fix these before birth. It is heart rending to have a loved one suffer from them, or even yourself. Could this help end them? Sure, it is possible. Could these kick off other unknown issues, possibly mental issues which are more difficult to deal with due to these changes, which might affect generations of people in highly negative ways? Or create a new threat to those people while fixing another?

We shall see. I view this with both excitement and trepidation. And the lack of oversight and restraints concern me, as scientists sometimes rush forward with things because they can, rather than looking at if they should first.

    DieJustAsHappy in reply to oldgoat36. | December 2, 2018 at 8:36 pm

    More fully and comprehensively expressed than I. Thank you.

    Milhouse in reply to oldgoat36. | December 3, 2018 at 2:46 am

    You’re just restating at length that old chestnut of the left, the “precautionary principle”. Never do anything, never change the “natural order”, because everything has unknown consequences and they might be bad. Yes, anything we do might have bad unforeseen consequences, but you have never considered that on general principles it is just as likely to have good ones.

    (I would say more likely, since essential to a conservative worldview is optimism, the belief that the world is benevolent. This is especially so if one believes the world was made by a benevolent God rather than coming together through random chance; or, if you like, the fact that the world is benevolent is proof that it was made by a benevolent God.)

    But leave that aside and let’s suppose good consequences are only as likely as bad ones, they’re still enough to cancel the bad ones out in our considerations. Since we don’t know whether the net unforeseen effect of some proposed act will be good or bad, and the foreseen effect is entirely good, we should do it. Only when we have actual reason to suppose bad effects should we worry about them and try to mitigate them.

    Asbestos is great, and the danger we’ve discovered is easily manageable; the way we’ve completely rejected it is stupid, and the way we open up buildings where it’s lying harmlessly, and set about removing it, thereby putting it in the air where we know it can do harm, is criminally stupid.

    There is no evidence that plants that are being altered are causing problems with bees. It is entirely, from beginning to end, a leftist anti-progress furphy, to which we should give no room. By believing this you are playing along with the core of all leftist ideology, which is to keep humans in a state of nature.

    Fear of population growth is utterly a leftist concern. Population is a blessing; humans are the most valuable natural resource there is, inevitably creating in the net more wealth than we consume. That is why the most heavily populated countries prosper while the most sparsely populated ones wither. Leaving form of government aside, would you rather live in the Netherlands or Hong Kong, or in Mauritania? For more about this, see the works of the late Julian Simon.

    That isn’t to be callus, we value life, but at what cost to humanity in the long run?

    Sorry, but that is callous, no matter how much you deny it. Because there is no possible interpretation of your words but that we should deny those poor countries medicine, and clean water, because it is right and proper that they should die at forty while we live to eighty. But then why not apply the same standard to ourselves? Should we not forsake medicine, water purification, agriculture, and all the things that let us live better than those people do? If we don’t want that for ourselves, how can we think it could possibly be good for them?

      I find it puzzling that something this important is being played so politically. Ethics are not partisan, and we can’t in one breath argue that the left lives only in the moment, unconcerned about the “unintended consequences” of their policy and agenda choices, and then argue that they are the ones who fear “unintended consequences.”

      Muddying the argument in this way is dishonest and unhelpful. In essence, the point is that only the most leftist nutter would object to genetic “editing,” and that’s not only patently false (it was progressives who embraced eugenics, “unintended consequences” be damned) but dangerous. How about we have a discussion about this without painting our opponents as flaming leftists who should be ignored because they must be flaming leftists to distrust genetic “editing”?

      While I don’t have an informed opinion on genetic “editing” as yet, I do know partisan and ideological bullying when I see it. Stop it.

      Dathurtz in reply to Milhouse. | December 3, 2018 at 6:41 am

      I think it wise to draw a distinction between “We don’t know if/what the consequences will be!” and “We know this gene is tied to multiple traits and we don’t yet know the totality of the relationship.” It isn’t a baseless fear of the unknown here, but a real understanding that CCR5 plays many roles in a complex system. CCR5 isn’t there just so humans can contract HIV.

      There is really only one way to test out the effects of any mutation, and it seems Dr. He has decided to give it a go. This is aside from the reliability of CRISPR being brought into pretty sharp question with a research group claiming it made seemingly random edits far away from the target site.

      I may be the oddball in that I am pro-human engineering, but this experiment really is unethical in that we have created humans specifically as research subjects. I have major issues with using humans as guinea pigs, especially when they cannot give consent. We know there will be some bad consequences, but we don’t know what they will be or how severe they will be. That status isn’t one where we just go ahead anyway, it is one where we gather more data with our eye toward moving ahead safely.

DieJustAsHappy | December 2, 2018 at 8:32 pm

As I recall from my studies, sociologists speak of cultural lag. This is the concept that technology (science) outpaces our moral, ethical, and legal institutions. It seems to me that, of late, the gap has grown wider and wider.

The observation has been made that human nature changes very little. So, while there may be some benefits of such technology, I’m pessimistic about them. They are no longer innovations that are localized, but ones for which there is a rush for them to be applied, often on the basis of very emotional argumentation. Moreover, while certain groups may adhere to certain standards, others might well decide to ignore them and embark on a course of significant danger to all humankind.

Whatever our position with regard to this matter might we agree that we are in considerable need of wisdom in our time?

How does this technology differ from a vaccination?

The far left academics, and others obstructing this progress should be crushed by patients and by their families.

    Colonel Travis in reply to David Behar. | December 2, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    Vaccinations start as unknown solutions that ultimately become successful treatments to a known problem. Genetic engineering is allegedly a solution to something, but we have no clue what will happen as a result.

    I”m fine with cutting edge/experimental treatment in cases where someone has nothing else to lose and will die otherwise. But screwing around with genetics before you’re even born? That’s getting into serious moral questions we’ve never had to deal with except with the Nazis. And this example comes from China, the same country that wants to keep track of your social credit score? Yeah, good luck with that.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only people who seem to salivate over this come from the most oppressive regimes who have ever lived.

The slime ball opposition is from healthy, far left, elitist obstructionists.

They have the credibility of iron lung doctors nitpicking the problems with the polio vaccine.

Time to watch Gattaca again.

Remember the idea at the very core of leftism is Rousseau’s wicked notion that Nature is good, and man and all his works are evil. Man can only redeem himself by becoming one with Nature. The Nobel Savage. Agriculture as original sin. Technology and urbanism as the devil; once we’ve seen Paree we refuse to stay down on the farm, just as once we saw the farm we refused to stay down in the forest, and I suppose once we saw the forest floor we refused to stay up in the trees. But as Hobbes wrote, life in a state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And that is why leftism, if taken to its logical conclusions, always ends up in the Killing Fields.

My hesitance to accept genetic modification is 2 things:

1) The fact that scientists cannot currently accurately predict basic traits through genes, although we are aware of which genes GENERALLY control certain things.

2) Liberals and liberal governments willing to do truly ridiculous things on poorly understood or fraudulent science (climate change, for instance)

This guy claims to have permanently altered the immune system chemistry of two individuals and their progeny based on an unproven theory that may not work for the intended objective.

This, if true, is a disaster, and calling any cautionary comment “leftism” in advance is malicious nonsense.

The human body is complicated, and the significant existing genetic variation that has no negative consequences does not exist.

For one example, the one genetic difference I once thought was entirely useful, resistance to sunburn of dark skins, results in vitamin D deficiency and is linked to higher cancer rates in African Americans in the US. It took a long time to find that link. The effects are subtle, and do not show up except as a statistical anomaly (and early death, of course).

Even correcting a genetic defect, which is the least intrusive objective, may trigger negative effects, either in the altered individuals or in subsequent generations. Correcting a genetic defect is the least intrusive alteration, because we think we are making a single (or several) changes back to a known, good copy set. This is an inherent safeguard that limits the likelihood of upsetting the overall balance in an individual’s genetic scheme.

That doesn’t mean there will be no negative effects. Human beings are complicated. Every human genetic change carries the risk of some other set of changes, relating to the interaction with other genes, that we will be unable to predict. We don’t even know enough about how the body turns genes on and off.

The justification for correcting a genetic defect, of course, is that the individual is already burdened, and making the change should at least improve or lengthen the life of the altered individual. This is legitimate.

I’m not concerned with “playing God.” He delegated this world to us. I am concerned about an unintelligent refusal to recognize broadly predictable hazards with far-reaching consequences.

‘The arrival of twin girls born in China…’ is the true headline here.

All across the globe baby boys are prized over baby girls. In a repressive country like China that imposes a ‘one child policy’ on all its subjects, this necessitates the intended consequence of ‘gender-cide’ via abortion as birth control.

The fact that a girl was born in China is headline enough, but 2 twins to one mother is illegal in China.

These ethical controversied will lede to naught. Pandoras box has been opened and the condrum of ‘just because we can, should we?’ has rarely restrained human desire.

I think the real problem for Dr. He is facillitating the birth of 2 girls to one mother. The fact they might possess super-human resistance to a horrid disease that might extend their lifespan in an already over-populated is a secondary concern for China’s gender-cide policy of birth control.

JusticeDelivered | December 3, 2018 at 9:38 am

Genetic enhancement of humans are inevitable, as are a broad spectrum of enhancements to our bodies, including our brains.

As humanity evolved a rather large percentage have been left behind. What if billions of inbred people can be fixed? Would the world be a better place if slower peoples could have children benefiting from higher IQ?

And there are lots of genetic conditions ripe for genetic engineering.

It is no different than splitting the atom. Lots of useful controlled power vs making a bomb. So the big question is, is it necessary? All of the problems with medical care can be traced back to answering the question of do we have to because we can with “yes.” This is likely another question where yes will prove to be the wrong answer.

Here’s a nice article that elucidates the story.

EMBRYONIC GENE EDITING HAS ARRIVED; NOW WHAT?
Bradley J. Fikes
https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/business/biotech/sd-me-human-gene-editing-20181202-story.html

It turns out that the person who made the presentation claiming the two altered children, He Jiankui, is a physicist, not a medical doctor, and perhaps not one who is cognizant of very recent research. At least, his presentation did not address “epigenetic” changes, that is, changes other than those to the DNA sequence itself, but which affect the pattern of gene activation and silencing.

He said the babies were engineered for their own good, because the father is HIV positive. Another scientist, Dr. Eric Topol said that infection through the father was “impossible” because the fathers semen was “washed” so that no HIV particles could be present among the spermatozoa used to create the embryos.

There is no confirmation that the DNA was actually altered, no confirmation that all of the cells were altered, and so far, no confirmation that the alteration, done properly, would result in resistance do HIV (and ONLY resistance to HIV).

A similar technology is being tested right now in human adults already infected with HIV. In this type of gene editing, immune system cells are extracted from the person, engineered, inspected, grown in the lab to expand their population to a significant dose, and then returned to the patient. This work is ethical because it has the potential of providing the benefit of gene altering, without the hazard of changing the person’s descendants (does not alter germline cells).

The procedure used in this dystopian experiment was directed to altering the girls’ germline cells, and if effective would be permanently placed in the DNA of their descendants.

The article also has a nice explanation of CRISPR technology, which is essentially the ability to cut and paste DNA into a specific location.

If this experiment had been done on the father, it would have been ethically justified because the man has an existing HIV infection. Instead it was done on two, presumably uninfected baby girls.

This experiment was done in China, and is by no means the first spectacularly unethical claim for “scientific” work by a Chinese researcher. I submit the Chinese government should examine the subtle teachings it has imparted to its researchers, by treating human embryos, particularly girl babies, as throwaway objects.

I find myself coming down on the side of CRISPR as a cure for medical conditions that have sucked the life and health of millions, for no other reason than they got the bad end of the genetic stick.

Interestingly, genetic research is being conducted to develop a cure for rheumatoid arthritis.

https://www.technologynetworks.com/genomics/news/a-crispr-based-cure-for-arthritis-288219

All technology has the potential for misuse. However, to remove the cause of chronic pain permanently and give someone a substantially enhanced quality of life would be a blessing.

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