New research indicates that the controversial use of CRISPR gene-editing on twin girls in China last year might have inadvertently improved their cognitive capacities, including their ability to learn and form memories, leading to a renewed debate about whether designer babies are going to become a reality in the very near future.
Controversial CRISPR Procedure Might Have Unintended Consequences
The twin girls, Lulu and Nana, allegedly had their genes modified prior to birth, with the stated goal of making the girls immune to HIV infection.
The gene that was supposedly modified using CRISPR is CCR5, which the HIV virus needs to inject itself into human blood cells. However, it also has well-established links to cognitive abilities in mice and memory formation and also helped the human brain recover after a stroke.
Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been studying the links between human cognition, memory formation, and CCR5 for years. In 2016, Silva and Miou Zhou, a professor at the Western University of Health Sciences in California, showed how removing the CCR5 gene from mice provided a significant boost to their memory.
Silva believes that this alteration also enhanced the cognitive capacity of the twins Lulu and Nana. “The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” he said. “The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins.”
Beyond that, no one can say what the impact on the girls' cognitive capacities will be in the long run—for good or bad—; “that is why it should not be done,” Silva added.
Inadvertent Human Enhancement?
The team of scientists who claim to have edited Lulu and Nana’s genes, led by Southern University of Science and Technology, Shenzhen researcher, He Jiankui, say they used CRISPR to edit CCR5 out of the twins’ DNA when they were still only embryos, and that some of the 31 embryos they edited have gone on to becomes pregnancies.
The claim unleashed a global firestorm of condemnation. The Chinese government has opened an investigation into He though there has been no independent verification of He’s work as of yet. Considering that no one knows for sure whether He has actually done as he and his team claim, the swiftness of the condemnation of his work—unproven as it is—shows the sensitivity around this issue.
Whether He did in fact edit Lulu and Nana’s genes, it appears he didn’t intend to impact their cognitive capacities. According to MIT Technology Review, not a single researcher studying CCR5’s role in intelligence was contacted by He, even as other doctors and scientists were sought out for advice about his project.
This further adds to the alarm as there is every expectation that He should have known about the connection between CCR5 and cognition.
At a gathering of gene-editing researchers in Hong Kong two days after the birth of the potentially genetically-altered twins was announced, He was asked about the potential impact of erasing CCR5 from the twins DNA on their mental capacity.
He responded that he knew about the potential cognitive link shown in Silva’s 2016 research. “I saw that paper, it needs more independent verification,” He said, before adding that “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”
The problem, as Silva sees it, is that He may be blazing the trail for exactly that outcome, whether He intends to or not. Silva says that after his 2016 research was published, he received an uncomfortable amount of attention from some unnamed, elite Silicon Valley leaders who seem to be expressing serious interest in using CRISPR to give their children's brains a boost through gene editing.
As such, Silva can be forgiven for not quite believing He’s claims that he wasn’t intending to alter the human genome for enhancement. When Lulu and Nana were announced to the world, Silva says “My reaction was visceral repulsion and sadness.”
“I suddenly realized—Oh, holy shit, they are really serious about this bullshit,” Silva added.
Are Designer Babies Inevitable?
The idea of designer babies isn’t new. As far back as Plato, the thought of using science to “engineer” a better human has been tossed about, but other than selective breeding, there really hasn't been a path forward.
In the late 1800s, early 1900s, Eugenics made a real push to accomplish something along these lines, and the results were horrifying, even before Nazism. After eugenics mid-wifed the Holocaust in World War II, the concept of designer children has largely been left as fodder for science fiction since few reputable scientists would openly declare their intention to dabble in something once championed and pioneered by the greatest monsters of the 20th century.
Memories have faded though, and CRISPR significantly changes this decades-old calculus. CRISPR makes it easier than ever to target specific traits in order to add or subtract them from an embryos genetic code. Embryonic research is also a diverse enough field that some scientist could see pioneering designer babies as a way to establish their star power in academia while getting their names in the history books, all while working in relative isolation. They only need to reveal their results after the fact and there is little the scientific community can do to stop them, unfortunately.
Unethical, Almost Certainly...But It Might Not Matter
When He revealed his research and data two days after announcing the births of Lulu and Nana, the gene-scientists at the Hong Kong conference were not all that impressed with the quality of He’s work. He has not provided access for fellow researchers to either his data on Lulu, Nana, and their family's genetic data so that others can verify that Lulu and Nana's CCR5 genes were in fact eliminated.
This almost rudimentary verification and validation would normally accompany a major announcement such as this. Neither has He’s work undergone a peer-review process and it hasn’t been formally published in any scientific journal—possibly for good reason.
Researchers such as Eric Topol, a geneticist at the Scripps Research Institute, have been finding several troubling signs in what little data He has released. Topol says that the editing itself was not precise and show “all kinds of glitches.”
Gaetan Burgio, a geneticist at the Australian National University, is likewise unimpressed with the quality of He’s work. Speaking of the slides He showed at the conference to support his claim, Burgio calls it amateurish, “I can believe that he did it because it’s so bad.”
Worse of all, its entirely possible that He actually succeeded in editing Lulu and Nana's genetic code in an ad hoc, unethical, and medically substandard way. Sadly, there is no shortage of families with means who would be willing to spend a lot of money to design their idea of a perfect child, so there is certainly demand for such a "service."
“Could it be conceivable that at one point in the future we could increase the average IQ of the population?" Silva asks. "I would not be a scientist if I said no. The work in mice demonstrates the answer may be yes. But mice are not people. We simply don’t know what the consequences will be in mucking around. We are not ready for it yet.”