By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

In November 2018, Chinese scientist Dr. He Jiankui shocked the world with the birth announcement of the century: he had successfully used CRISPR gene-editing techniques on human genes, producing the world’s first genetically edited human babies. Now, however, he faces serious legal charges concerning the ethics violations at play during his experimentation.

Dr. Jiankui and his team of researchers at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China edited the genes of human embryos, then implanted said embryos in several female volunteers. One volunteer gave birth to twins in November, while another is reported to be due soon.

The volunteers involved were partners of men afflicted with HIV, and the embryos were altered to be resistant to HIV infection. If effective, this would function to prove the benefit of such practices; however, Dr. Jiankui’s operation proved to be wholly unsuccessful. More alarming, the participants were not aware of the risks of genetic engineering, nor were they made aware that there were problems with the operation from the beginning.

In the specific case of genetically engineering for HIV resistance, both copies of the CCR5 gene must be disabled using CRISPR, an adaptive form of DNA naturally functioning to destroy viruses now manipulated to destroy the cells of a scientist’s choosing. While inactive CCR5 genes do lead to HIV resistance, they also increase an individual’s risk of contracting West Nile virus and encephalitis.

Dr. Jiankui’s genetic alterations seem unreliable, which he openly admitted at a conference in Hong Kong. According to Jiankui, only one copy of the CCR5 gene was disabled in one of his embryos, which will provide limited, if any, protection against HIV infection. Safer, more reliable means of preventing HIV in infants already exists, reinforcing the argument that Dr. Jiankui’s risky attempts were highly unnecessary.

More troubling is the concern of mosaicism, common when CRISPR is used for gene editing. Mosaicism affects all genes in the body and occurs when certain copies of genes contain genetically altered material, but their corresponding genes do not. Upon reviewing Dr. Jiankui’s data, Dr. Kiran Musunuru of the University of Pennsylvania announced that there was evidence of mosaicism from the beginning stages of the experiment, yet Jiankui proceeded anyway.

Mosaicism may cause a slew of mental and physical handicaps should the afflicted baby survive past developmental stages. In keeping this information from his volunteers, Dr. Jiankui forced a sea of troubles on unsuspecting families.

While gene editing in theory may one day prove beneficial in the elimination of genetic disorders, the foul play of Dr. Jiankui demonstrates humanity still has leaps and bounds to make before we are morally and scientifically prepared to take on the responsibility of engineering human lifeforms.

While his legal fate is to be determined, Dr. Jiankui will no longer be allowed to conduct such research at his university.

The Elm

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