Last week a scientist in China announced that the first genetically edited babies had been born. The aim of the experiment was to create children who are immune to HIV, but it hasn’t yet been independently reviewed or verified. It has, to say the least, caused an up roar. The Chinese government has condemned the work, saying the experiment “crossed the line of morality and ethics adhered to by the academic community and was shocking and unacceptable,” in the words of Xy Nanping, China’s vice minister of science and technology. On Thursday, the Chinese government claimed to shut down the gene-editing project and launched its own investigation. But not before another pregnancy has been announced by the same scientist.
The team in China, led by He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, used the CRISPR (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CRISPR) gene editing technique to try to disable the gene for CCR5. HIV enters and infects cells by binding to a protein on the surface called CCR5.
This is a slippery scientific slope, the effects can be very difficult to predict, both on the new born and their offspring.
In total, the experiment produced 22 embryos. To check that the CRISPR gene editing had worked, a single cell was removed from each embryo and analyzed. He says that 16 embryos had successfully been edited, 11 of which were implanted. Only one pregnancy was successfully achieved, and it produced twins.
Of these twins, one is said to have had both their copies of CCR5 disabled. That means that their body won’t make the CCR5 protein, and their cells should be able to resist infection with HIV. As usual science appears to take a benevolent path, trying to dissuade any criticism. Hoping to over shadow the powerful and dangerous technology they are experimenting with. How can anybody object to the eradication of a disease or debilitating genetic defect?
In his book Brief Answers To The Big Questions, the late Stephen Hawking had this to say.
“For the first two billion years or so the rate of increase in complexity must have been of the order of one bit of information every hundred years. The rate of increase of DNA complexity gradually rose to about on bit a year over the last few million years. But now we are beginning a new era in which we will be able to increase the complexity of our DNA without having to wait for the slow process of biological evolution. There has been relatively little change in human DNA in the last 10,000 years. But it is likely that we will be able to redesign it completely in the next thousand. Of course, may people will say that genetic engineering on humans should be banned. But I rather doubt they will be able to prevent it. Genetic engineering on plants and animals will be allowed for economic reasons, and someone is bound to try it on humans. Clearly developing improved humans will create great social and political problems with respect to un-improved humans.”
Later in the same chapter titled, "Will We Survive On Earth", he said.
“This is why I don’t believe the science-fiction picture of an advanced by constant future. Instead, I expect complexity to increase at a rapid rate, in both the biological and the electronic spheres. Not much of this will happen in the next hundred years, which is all we can reliable predict. But by the end of the next millennium, if we get there, the change will be fundamental.”
We appear be on a faster pace than Mr. Hawking expected. Oh, and by the way, the scientist that conducted these experiments…has gone missing.
My next science fiction novel, The Apotheosis, to be released in May 2019, deals with a technological derivative of what He used. A much more powerful derivative. With equally powerful consequences for all involved. I look forward to sharing this story with you, especially considering the events of the past week. Watch for an announcement for a giveaway on Goodreads.com of Advanced Readers Copies.
If you had a genetic disorder flowing through your family’s DNA like Breast Cancer, Autism, Downs Syndrome or Parkinson’s disease would you want to use it on your offspring to ensure they didn’t suffer from aliments like these? I’d like to hear back from you. What do you think about the use of this technology on humans?