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.