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    Genetically edited twins give birth to scientific, ethical controversies

    Genetically edited twins give birth to scientific, ethical controversies

    Will Dr. He Jiankui be deemed a rogue scientist or an historic innovator?

    The arrival of twin girls born in China, whose genetic make-up was edited while they were embryos using cutting-edge technology, has given birth to ethical qualms and scientific controversies.

    To begin with, more than 100 scientists, most of them in China, have condemned the experimental geneticist’s claims.

    In an open letter circulating online, the scientists said the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to edit the genes of human embryos was risky, unjustified and harmed the reputation and development of the biomedical community in China.

    The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He Jiankui holds an associate professorship, said it had been unaware of the research project and that Dr He had been on leave without pay since February.

    China’s National Health Commission added that it was ‘highly concerned’ and had ordered provincial health officials ‘to immediately investigate and clarify the matter’.

    In videos posted online, Dr He has defended what he claimed to have achieved, saying he had performed the gene editing to help protect the babies from future infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.


    According to He, Nana and Lulu were born “normal and healthy”. And while there has been now verification of these claims, the technical details revealed by the researcher have convinced many that we may have entered a new stage of human evolution.

    The technology used for this process is called CRISPR-Cas9 and was first described in 2012 and 2013.

    CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” Those repeats are found in bacteria’s DNA. They are actually copies of small pieces of viruses. Bacteria use them like collections of mug shots to identify bad viruses. Cas9 is an enzyme that can cut apart DNA. Bacteria fight off viruses by sending the Cas9 enzyme to chop up viruses that have a mug shot in the collection.

    …This tool can quickly and efficiently tweak almost any gene in any plant or animal. Researchers already have used it to fix genetic diseases in animals, to combat viruses and to sterilize mosquitoes. They have also used it to prepare pig organs for human transplants and to beef up the muscles in beagles.

    Some scientists have already expressed deep concerns about the genes edited by He’s team, particularly regarding unintended consequences.

    The stated aim of the project was to make individuals immune to HIV by disabling the gene for a protein called CCR5, which is exploited by the virus. However, disabling this gene does not provide complete protection against HIV and the broader consequences of knocking out this gene – which is involved in immune function – are unclear.

    The team began by using the CRISPR gene editing method to disable CCR5 in mice and monkeys, He said, and found no health or behavioural issues. But one of the organisers of the summit, Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London, pointed out that immune genes affect the entire body, and that a different mouse study found that deleting CCR5 improved their cognitive abilities.

    “Have you inadvertently caused an enhancement?” Lovell-Badge asked He after the talk. The mouse study needed verification, He replied. “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”

    At the session of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing where he announced his results, He indicated more was more gene-edited babies are on the way.

    When pressed on the number of implantations that have taken place so far, the scientist disclosed that there is another potential pregnancy involving a gene-edited embryo. He hesitated to answer the question because the pregnancy is in an early stage. His research team has so far injected Crispr systems into 31 embryos that have developed to the blastocyst stage. He said 70 percent of them were successfully edited and await further screening and implantation in five remaining couples. But now that’s all on hold. “The trial is paused due to the current situation,” said He.

    Many leading researcher in the audience were upset at the ‘secret research’ and fear a backlash.

    After Mr He spoke, David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from the California Institute of Technology and a leader of the conference, said the scientist’s work “would still be considered irresponsible” because it did not meet criteria many scientists agreed on several years ago before gene editing could be considered.

    Mr Baltimore said: “I personally don’t think that it was medically necessary.”

    I will simply point out that relying on the Chinese to “play by the rules” is usually not the best option.

    Whether He will be deemed a rogue scientist or an historic innovator will depend on many factors, including how healthy and happy Lulu and Nana become.

    Legal Insurrection readers interested in understanding the CRISPR process might find this video interesting.


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    Milhouse | December 3, 2018 at 2:58 am

    Remember the idea at the very core of leftism is Rousseau’s wicked notion that Nature is good, and man and all his works are evil. Man can only redeem himself by becoming one with Nature. The Nobel Savage. Agriculture as original sin. Technology and urbanism as the devil; once we’ve seen Paree we refuse to stay down on the farm, just as once we saw the farm we refused to stay down in the forest, and I suppose once we saw the forest floor we refused to stay up in the trees. But as Hobbes wrote, life in a state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And that is why leftism, if taken to its logical conclusions, always ends up in the Killing Fields.

    Olinser | December 3, 2018 at 3:59 am

    My hesitance to accept genetic modification is 2 things:

    1) The fact that scientists cannot currently accurately predict basic traits through genes, although we are aware of which genes GENERALLY control certain things.

    2) Liberals and liberal governments willing to do truly ridiculous things on poorly understood or fraudulent science (climate change, for instance)

    Valerie | December 3, 2018 at 4:09 am

    This guy claims to have permanently altered the immune system chemistry of two individuals and their progeny based on an unproven theory that may not work for the intended objective.

    This, if true, is a disaster, and calling any cautionary comment “leftism” in advance is malicious nonsense.

    The human body is complicated, and the significant existing genetic variation that has no negative consequences does not exist.

    For one example, the one genetic difference I once thought was entirely useful, resistance to sunburn of dark skins, results in vitamin D deficiency and is linked to higher cancer rates in African Americans in the US. It took a long time to find that link. The effects are subtle, and do not show up except as a statistical anomaly (and early death, of course).

    Even correcting a genetic defect, which is the least intrusive objective, may trigger negative effects, either in the altered individuals or in subsequent generations. Correcting a genetic defect is the least intrusive alteration, because we think we are making a single (or several) changes back to a known, good copy set. This is an inherent safeguard that limits the likelihood of upsetting the overall balance in an individual’s genetic scheme.

    That doesn’t mean there will be no negative effects. Human beings are complicated. Every human genetic change carries the risk of some other set of changes, relating to the interaction with other genes, that we will be unable to predict. We don’t even know enough about how the body turns genes on and off.

    The justification for correcting a genetic defect, of course, is that the individual is already burdened, and making the change should at least improve or lengthen the life of the altered individual. This is legitimate.

    I’m not concerned with “playing God.” He delegated this world to us. I am concerned about an unintelligent refusal to recognize broadly predictable hazards with far-reaching consequences.

    ‘The arrival of twin girls born in China…’ is the true headline here.

    All across the globe baby boys are prized over baby girls. In a repressive country like China that imposes a ‘one child policy’ on all its subjects, this necessitates the intended consequence of ‘gender-cide’ via abortion as birth control.

    The fact that a girl was born in China is headline enough, but 2 twins to one mother is illegal in China.

    These ethical controversied will lede to naught. Pandoras box has been opened and the condrum of ‘just because we can, should we?’ has rarely restrained human desire.

    I think the real problem for Dr. He is facillitating the birth of 2 girls to one mother. The fact they might possess super-human resistance to a horrid disease that might extend their lifespan in an already over-populated is a secondary concern for China’s gender-cide policy of birth control.

    JusticeDelivered | December 3, 2018 at 9:38 am

    Genetic enhancement of humans are inevitable, as are a broad spectrum of enhancements to our bodies, including our brains.

    As humanity evolved a rather large percentage have been left behind. What if billions of inbred people can be fixed? Would the world be a better place if slower peoples could have children benefiting from higher IQ?

    And there are lots of genetic conditions ripe for genetic engineering.

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