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An Era of Designer Babies?

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An Era of Designer Babies?


Has the door to controlling our evolution been unlocked?

Chinese scientist, He Jiankui caused controversial uproar earlier this week following the creation of the first ever gene-edited, designer babies. Twins “Lulu and Nana” are believed to have successfully gained resistance from the infamous HIV/AIDS virus through a process which is still under very close ethical debate.


HIV-induced AIDS is an incurable, life threatening disease that many scientists worldwide have been relentlessly tackling from its onset in the 1980s. As a result, HIV positive individuals or carriers are rendered dangerous to offspring – a fact in which the rogue Professor He claims to have defied.


Despite the father of “Lulu and Nana” being HIV carriers, He’s germline gene – editing (alteration of inheritable genes) trial has supposedly achieved the desired genetic resistance. Or has he? 


To supposedly achieve this, Professor He used CRISPR/Cas9 technology to eliminate the gene which facilitates infection by allowing HIV access to the cell - CCR5. As a result, the virus can no longer have a detrimental impact to the offspring.


This genetic modification in the early embryonic development stages fuels a new hope for a potential cure not of only HIV, but many other incurable genetic diseases. However, it also raises plenty of ethical questions, too.


What is CRISPR technology?


Put simply, CRISPR is the biological tool used to assist the alteration and modification of specific genes present in an organism’s genome (complete set of genetic material).


If not meticulously regulated and monitored, the enzyme – described to imitate a “copy and paste” tool - has the potential to cause catastrophic damage by assisting in the formation of several dangerous mutations.


Due to this, there are many ethical concerns and moral questions surrounding the enzyme’s usage. 



Professor He’s Trial Process


Like regular IVF treatment, the procedure was performed in a controlled laboratory environment.


At the point in which fertilisation occurs and a zygote is formed - the single cell before developing into a human embryo - He injects the CRISPR protein instructing it to genetically modify the cell by removing the gene responsible for creating the HIV doorway. Once complete, He analysed the genome sequence to ensure the procedure was successful and therefore, safe to insert into the mother’s womb.


Following the course of a normal, closely monitored pregnancy, two healthy twin girls were born. Lulu and Nana’s genome was again sequenced after birth detecting no other harmful changes or genetic defects thus; suggesting the procedure was a success.


However, as a result of the trial not being professionally published or subject to peer-review results in the claims to have very limited proof.

Consequentially, both the success and safety of the procedure are questionable.   


What are the advantages of gene-editing?


Ultimately, germline gene-editing could see the end to not only HIV/AIDS but also some of the most debilitating and lethal genetic diseases including sickle cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis to mention a few.

Where medicine fails, germline gene-editing is argued to have the ability to create a generation born with a built-in resistance to prevent a lifetime of suffering and pass on to generations to come.


Implications of Gene-editing

Where some view this as a unique method of healing, others see a new form of eugenics that in the future, may be abused to create designer babies for aspects other than those therapeutically advantageous.


However, determining what could be identified as a genetic “illness” may prove both unethical and controversial. Those living with disorders - such as dwarfism, deafness or downs syndrome - may not believe they are suffering from the disorder itself, but instead, are suffering from how they are treated by society.


Moreover, the most pressing issue when addressing gene-editing is how messy the modification of germline cells can be.


Each gene interacts amongst several others in numerous complex unforeseen ways. Therefore, the interruption of one gene could disrupt many other bodily functions introducing accidental mutations. If these mutations are passed on, it could influence the entire human gene pool and quite easily get out of control.


Both the UK and US have made human gene-editing trials illegal in attempt to regulate these ethical concerns. However, as He has demonstrated, gene-editing technology is advancing at a faster rate than regulations being implemented.


So, should we play the "role of God"? 


On reflection, it’s important to remember that IVF, now a routine procedure, was also once highly frowned upon and protested. Now, 8 million babies later, this procedure has helped many families find a solution to their infertility problems.  


Who’s to say gene-editing won’t one day become a social norm?


if carefully regulated and treated with caution, Professor He may just have unlocked the most power tool to controlling our own evolution.

Only time will tell if this advancement in genetic engineering is exciting or very alarming.

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