The latest news in genetics comes out of Shenzhen, China where an associate professor of bioengineering at the Southern University of Science and Technology, He Jiankui, claims that two little girls are the world’s first genetically edited newborn babies. Using CRISPR, Jiankui has modified the babies’ genes to make them resistant to infection from HIV. The father of the babies is said to be positive for HIV. As of November 27th (the date of the article), there was no data to demonstrate how this experiment took place but is said to speak on more on the topic. The University has condemned the topic and even issued a statement saying that they had no idea that the project was going on.
How HIV infects cells via CCR5
In a Youtube video, Jiankui claimed that he used CRISPR to disable CCR5, a protein receptor that allows HIV to infect blood cells. On specific mutation, Delta32, disables HIV from locking onto the cell. In theory, if all individuals carried this mutant allele, then nobody would be able to get AIDs from HIV. CRISPR has been used in the laboratory for many situations, like eliminating diseases and improving the health of different crops. This technique, though, has never been used on human embryos, and therefore the results are unknown. One major problem is that CRISPR can cause off-target mutations to genes away from the target genes, and therefore can have many other implications.
Many companies are already looking to gene therapies in adults to edit the CCR5 cells in adults. In theory, scientists would remove blood from HIV positive patients, delete the CCR5 protein and return the cell back to the patient. It seems like every action has a reaction, and in this sense, getting rid of the CCR5 protein would increase susceptibility to West Nile virus, which is already seen in the real world when individuals are born without the CCR5 protein. Overall, Jiankui wrote a piece that discussed the core principles in the genetic editing of human embryos.
I am very interested in ethics in relation to science, and especially in relation to genetic editing. I believe that it should be interesting to see the effects of this experiment over time. I do not feel strongly for or against human genome editing or the idea of “designer babies”. If this experiment works and is able to basically eliminate HIV and AIDs ability to infect humans, think of what other uses human genome editing could have. Genetic cancers could be cured, and other genetic diseases could be edited. I think the use of genome editing for superficial purposes is unethical at this point in time. I think that the world has a ways to go in terms of being able to accept genetic editing and there will always be disagreement for it. Overall, the effects of this experiment will be interesting to see how it changes genetics forever, and it is so cool to see this monumental moment in scientific history.