By Brian Murray
“Consider God’s handiwork, who can straighten what He hath made crooked”
The most promising breakthroughs in modern medicine and disease prevention occurring right now are made in the realm of genetic editing, and the newest and most promising method of altering DNA strands is known as CRISPR. CRISPR is a method of altering genetic code that uses a protein known as CAS9 that is able to locate a certain pattern of genetic code along a strand of DNA, completely remove it from the strand, and replace it with another pattern. Many scientists are claiming that CRISPR could hold the secret to completely eradicating diseases like HIV, Cancer, Huntington’s disease, etc. The United States Government recognized the potential of this new method and approved a clinical trial for use on cancer patients in 2015, and soon after scientists in China announced their plans to implement CRISPR into their lung cancer treatments.
This all sounds like an excellent step towards improving the quality of life for all of humanity, but there are a few hang-ups. The biggest one is that our current understanding of the human genome is still in its infancy. There is very little room for error when it comes to altering an organism’s DNA and one unforeseen mistake could, in theory, irreversibly harm whole descendant populations. New diseases could occur, man-made mutations could become widespread, and the social implications could be devastating. The most controversial sector in genetic editing is the reworking of human germ cells like the sperm cell, the egg cell, or a human embryo. Modifying these genes would lead to man-made mutations in human DNA that would be transferable by normal reproductive means, and thus could spread throughout a community. Knowing this, the scientific journal, Nature, published an article titled “Don’t edit the human germ line” in which their writers state: “In our view, genome editing in human embryos using current technologies could have unpredictable effects on future generations. This makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable.” Other prominent scientific journals and media sources echoed these concerns and international biology institutions set up reasonable regulations to prevent this type of research from occurring until the technology available was adequate to perform such experiments safely. This was the gate that humanity had seemingly agreed not to cross.
About three months ago, Dr. He Jiankui of Shenzhen China announced (in a YouTube video of all things) that he has edited the DNA in the embryos of two twin girls. Some background information is necessary to understand why this happened and what it means for humanity moving forward. The biological father of the twin girls is HIV positive and the parents of the twin girls wanted to have children without the risk of giving them the immunodeficiency virus. In order to do this, they fertilized the embryos in a process known as IVF, in which a human zygote is formed outside of the womb. This is where Dr. He comes into it. It is unknown whether the parents understood what they were signing up for when they agreed to work with Dr. He on his experiment, (some sources even claim that he implied that the process was some sort of anti-HIV vaccine and intentionally used overly technical language on the consent forms that were presented to the couple) and he did not make his experiments known to the institution he is associated with (The Southern University of Science and Technology) despite using their labs and resources to perform them. Dr. He’s goal was to use CRISPR to remove a set of DNA that the HIV virus is known to latch onto from the embryos in order to make the twin girls more resilient to the virus. So, what are the results? The first result is the Dr. He unintentionally deleted the wrong set of nucleotides in both girls. The nucleotides that were removed should in theory produce the same result as the ones he was trying to delete, but because the technology is so new (and crude) and this form of human genetic modification is entirely untested, it is completely unclear what result this will have on the health and development of these girls.
The section of DNA that Dr. He did remove is part of another set of DNA known as CCR5, which research suggests being linked to cognitive function and the formation of memories, but the exact way that the removal of this gene from the twin’s DNA will affect the twins brain is still uncertain. It is also unknown if every cell in the girls’ bodies has the edited gene so both girls are at risk of a medical condition known as Mosaicism. As of right now the twins are a couple months old; they are referred to as Nana and Lulu by researchers in order to preserve the family’s anonymity. The twins are healthy, HIV free, and as of three months ago, the only thing that makes them different from every other human child is the fact that we know their cells have been genetically modified. What makes this whole situation so disheartening is that the procedure was completely unnecessary. The process of IVF alone would have ensured that the girls would not contract HIV from their parents so there was no medical need or benefit to this procedure. Dr. He’s motive doesn’t appear to be altruistic in the least; instead, it appears he crossed this boundary for the purpose of gaining fame for being the first guy to mutate human germ cells.
Despite announcing plans to do so, Dr. He has not published his work in a way that would allow the scientific community to view his findings and, considering that he is currently being prosecuted by the Chinese government for fabricating ethics reviews, the likelihood of him doing it now is doubtful. Also, current regulations in China regarding this situation forbid the media or researchers from observing future developments for the twins so we won’t be able to carry out future experiments to see how genetic editing could affect people.
So, what did researchers learn from all of this? Not much they didn’t already know. The fact that they can’t observe the twins into their adulthoods means that they’ll probably never learn anything about human genetics from this. Now there are two girls, who never consented to having their DNA altered, living in the world with man-made genetic mutations that may have massive impacts on their cognitive functions, all because some charlatan tricked their parents into agreeing to an experiment that most individuals involved in the field of bioethics would consider extraordinarily unethical. Make no mistake, this wasn’t so much a purposeful experiment as it was a vanity project perpetrated by a conceited egomaniac.
Mankind (willing or not) has now entered an age in which the act of reworking human DNA is possible and will only become more accessible to the general public in the coming decades. For now, we can only speculate on the effects that this meddling can have on future generations. With all the research that has gone into genetic research in recent decades, scientists are noticing that genes can be linked to far more human traits than the ones we’d normally think about. Everyone knows that most physical traits are directly controlled by certain patterns in our DNA, but in recent years scientists have found evidence that intrinsic ideas can be influenced by one’s genetics. According to a 2014 study in the Behavior Genetics international journal, genetics can even play a major role in the formation of an individual’s political ideologies. Other studies suggest similar genetic predispositions towards things like a proclivity to feel guilty, inclinations to holding grudges, and even a fondness of gambling. So far there is no link between genetic makeup and specific religious beliefs, but there is evidence of a genetic factor of how steadfast an individual will hold to their beliefs (religious or otherwise).
Currently, world governments seem apprehensive about the risks associated with genetic engineering, but it’s likely that as developments become more concrete and less abstract, people’s ideas of the alteration of hereditary traits will become more normalized. It’s not unthinkable that after the technology develops to an advanced state and the procedures to alter genes become cheaply available, an unscrupulous dictator figure of any nation could make certain genetic traits mandatory. Despite being the most promising development in modern medicine, this could quickly turn into a tool for eugenics. The moral ramifications surrounding “improving humans” by means of adjusting inheritable traits are divisive at best, but luckily most of humanity agrees that we should be proceeding with caution and that we shouldn’t rush into this the way Dr. He did.