Saturday , June 12 2021

Reports of the first genetically improved babies have caused anger

Qin Jinzhou, an embryologist working in the He Jiankui Laboratory in Shenzhen, looks through a microscope.
Picture: AP

Twin girls born earlier this month changed DNA to prevent them from infecting HIV, according to a report by the Associated Press. If confirmed, births will mark the first babies generated in the gene in human history – an amazing development that causes anxiety from scientists and ethics.

Professor He Jiankui of Shenzhen, China, announced today earlier in Hong Kong, informing the Associated Press of his apparent achievement and the publication of the accompanying video. He claims that twin girls were born earlier this month and that he changed his DNA with the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing tool, which he did to give him immunity to the AIDS virus. The request has yet to be confirmed independently, and the findings have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal; external experts had no opportunity to confirm the requirements or to assess the effectiveness or security of the procedure.

An article by the BBC describes this news as "suspicious", but there is reason to believe that claims can be true. Back in 2016, China's scientists used CRISPR to introduce a useful mutation that disables the immune cellular gene called CCR5, the immune system, by which a critical receptor or a route of entry is spilled, for the HIV virus to infect the cell. The experiment showed that one day it might be possible to deliberately give human DNA to this desirable mutation – the key word is "one day". Immediately after the experiment from 2016, scientists have destroyed embryos, saying more research will be needed before embryos can be changed in the mother's womb.

Allegedly, Professor He decided to completely unilaterally continue this research, allegedly implanting the modified embryos in his mother's womb – a step that most experts think is very premature and reckless at this stage. Gene regulation of human embryos is sanctioned in the United States, but all embryos must be destroyed within a few days. An enormous issue with this form of gene arrangement is that it is done on germ cell cells, which means that the introductory features are inherited. Such is the case with these twins in China, which, if they are truly genetically modified, will transfer the modified DNA to all children they have. Scientists are still far from knowing whether this procedure is effective and safe.

In this case, there is good reason for doubt. The CCR5 gene is known to cause neutralization conditions, as there is a greater risk of contracting the West Nile virus. Studies show that it also increases the person's chance of dying from the flu. Also, CRISPR is a notorious blunt instrument, and there is no way to know if its procedure has introduced the effects of a blow, some of them would not be known until girls become mature.

The details of the procedure are still rare, such as the identity of the parents or where the survey was conducted, but the preliminary information received from the AP is a cause for concern.

The AP reports that the arrangement of the CRISPR-cas9 genes is done during in vitro fertilization, or an IVF phase. A few days later, modified embryos cells were checked for signs of DNA regulation. Of the 22 modified embryos, 11 were used in six implantation trials. Only one worked, which resulted in double births. On the whole, about seven couples participated in the procedure.

The following tests suggest that one of the twins had only one copy of the planned gene change, while the other one had both. Individuals with one copy of the mutated gene may still be infected with HIV, but may have an increased ability to counteract the effects of the disease. Many experts say the procedure should not have been allowed to happen, but the decision to implant a "partly" modified embryo was even worse indiscretion, calling it a form of human experimentation.

Speaking about the AP, Dr. Kiran Musunuru, an expert in editing the Genetic University of Pennsylvania, said in this particular child: "There really was not nearly anything to be gained in terms of HIV protection, yet you reveal that child to all the unknown security risks, "adding that the whole enterprise is" unconscious "and" an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensive. "

Biologist Julian Savulescu from the University of Oxford described the experiment as "monstrous" in an interview with the BBC.

"The only arrangement of the gene is experimental and is still associated with unintentional mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer," Savulescu told the BBC. "This experiment exposes healthy normal children to the risks of regulating a gene without a real indispensable benefit."

If this is not enough, this story becomes even darker.

He, who works at the Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, gave the university official notification of his experiment "long after he said he started," the AP reported. It is unclear whether the participants understood the true nature of the experiment, which was described as a program for the development of AIDS vaccine. The University of Shenzhen said the work "seriously violated academic and ethical standards" and the investigation is under way. He, who owns two genetic companies in China, reportedly helped by American scientist Michael Deem, who was a counselor to He when they worked together at Rice University in Houston. Deem also has stakes in both He's companies.

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However, the conviction of the procedure is not universal among experts. The Herveadian geneticist George Church defended the alleged human gene engagement, told the AP that HIV was a "growing and growing public health hazard" and that the work he performed was "justified".

The fascinating aspect of this alarming story is that He did not try to cure genetic disease. On the contrary, it was a deliberate attempt to give people the ability to prevent future infections, namely those caused by the AIDS virus. In this sense, the procedure (if it happens in the way it claims) can be considered an improvement, not a therapy. As such, these girls can go down in history as the first improved people produced by the arrangement of a gene.

Unfortunately, the disgraceful recklessness exposed by He will now set the dark color of that futuristic perspective. Yes, in the end, we can use the arrangement of a gene to cure diseases and to allocate our species with new capabilities – but such research can not happen in the whims of enemy scientists.

[Associated Press and BBC]

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