Last updated on November 1, 2019
Erika C., Junior
When we were young, one thing we’ve all dreamed about having is a superpower. Growing up watching the movies and TV shows such as Spiderman, Batman and the Flash, receiving “superpowers” from genetic mutation or gene-editing has always been the topic of fiction. However, it has now become reality. Recently, the first genetically edited twins, Nana and Lulu, were born in China. Unlike the majority of normal children, they were born without the gene CCR5, which was genetically removed. This special genetic modification gave them a type of “superpower”: they are immune from the HIV virus. This genetic engineering was done by Chinese scientist, He Jiankui. After studying biology, physics, and other subjects at the University of Science and Technology of China, Rice University, and Stanford University, He Jiankui is a current professor of Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. His inspiration of using CRISPR to cure HIV started years ago.
HIV is a disease which has caused about 7.1 million infections since its discovery. Among these infections, more than 39 million people, accounting for 52% of the infections, have died. The reason behind this huge number is that HIV virus specifically attacks T-cells and other vital cells in the human immune system by binding to the CCR5 protein on the cell surface. CCR5 protein, produced by CCR5 gene, is a crucial receptor of the HIV virus. Since the discovery of this aspect, there has always been a question: does it mean that we will never get infected by HIV virus if we do not own the CCR5 gene? As it turns out, this is true There is a group of northern European descendants who are naturally born without the CCR5 gene. Even though this absence increases their risk of dying from a small flu and other diseases, it does not vitally influence their lives. This gives scientists and researchers a lot of inspiration regarding of HIV treatments.
One typical example of this is the Berlin patient, Timothy Ray Brown. Infected by the HIV virus and acute myeloid Leukemia (a type of blood cell cancer), Timothy has been suffering from both painful diseases and receiving various types of treatment. However, the situation surprisingly grew much better when he received a stem cell transplant in Berlin, Germany, 2007 from a northern European descendent whose CCR5 gene is naturally missing. After receiving one more transplant from the same donor, Timothy was fully cured in 2008. This experiment shows that it is theoretically plausible to use genetic engineering to treat HIV by removing the CCR5 gene. This is exactly what the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui did to Nana and Lulu. In his experiment, he used CRISPR, a genetic engineering technology that uses the complex of protein Cas9 and the sgRNA (single Guide RNA) to edit genome by cutting off a specific segment of a gene, to edit the embryos. Now, it seems like that these two babies were born healthy and this experiment is success. However, is it ethical to do this?
The answer is no. First of all, it is not morally appropriate. This experiment was done under a situation where the children were not necessarily infected by the HIV virus. Including their fathers, all the mothers of these experimented children do not the HIV gene, which is largely transmitted by mother-to-child transmission. This means that these kids had very little chance of getting infected. Thus, there is no pressing need for this experiment since the prevention of HIV for these kids can be easily done by a few steps. Secondly, this experiment has huge risks compared to its little benefits. Under this experiment, not only did the lab and the team face a huge financial strain, but also the kids faced the danger of the experiment’s failure: death. In addition, even if this experiment continues to be successful, no one can guarantee that the potential impact on their gene will be passed down to and show up in the next generation.
Additionally, this experiment brings up numbers of broader ethical questions. Just like abortion, do scientists need to consider the opinion of the embryo while doing this experiment? In another words, do embryos and babies have human rights? Also, are humans still human after being genetically engineered? What if people use this skill to create a “super-human weapon” or design babies in whatever way they want? Is this against the natural selection theory? All of these are the ethical questions that we need to consider before making decisions that could alter humanity.
While the advancement of technology is usually considered to be good, it is still important for people to think about the consequences it can bring. For now, the only thing we can do is to wait and see the outcome of this scientists human experiment and what will follow.