Late last year the world was stunned when Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced he had successfully edited the genes of embryos using CRISPR technology. He claims the edited embryos had been carried to full term by one mother, and that other edited babies were on the way.
He faced an intense backlash from the global scientific community including his university. Later China said they would investigate the experiments and press charges accordingly.
Who knew what?
New reports now indicate that Chinese authorities may have known more than they initially let on. By reviewing several independent media reports, a dark picture is emerging about how much the Chinese government and science academy knew about He's work before he went public.
Not only could He have been working with the permission of the Chinese Government his gene editing research might have been done with the intention to alter the babies brains as well as make them immune to HIV.
The Shenzhen Harmonicare Women’s and Children’s Hospital, where He carried out the work denies knowledge of his research and have stated they would press charges. However, the Washington Post reported that a hospital executive, Lin Zhitong, appears in an Associated Press and the MIT review video lauding He’s work.
Mutations highly risky
He claims to have ‘turned off’ a gene called CCR5 which is associated with HIV entering cells. He says his aim was to mimic a gene mutation that occurs in approximately 10% of Europeans that protects them from HIV.
While applaudable in some light, He may have caused mutations in other parts of the babies genome that could have serious health consequences. He says he found no such mutations, but the true results of his work might not appear in the edited children for years.
Although CCR5 is associated with HIV, it also helps fight off other infections such as the potentially deadly West Nile virus. The twins born with the edited genes may now be susceptible to this virus.
Edited babies may be cognitively superior
CCR5 is also linked to brain cognition. New research shows that turning off the CCR5 gene made mice smarter and helped human brains recover after a stroke. So was He trying to affect his patients brains?
“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles told the MIT review.
“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins.”
Future is unclear
There is no evidence He edited the genes with the goal of increased brain cognition, though he did admit in interviews he was aware of the link between CCR5 and brain function. But when pressed more on the subject he replied: “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”
Will He’s work be a step towards using CRISPR technology in humans or has the rogue work of one man set the science back as the world grapples with this complicated ethical question?