STEM

The gene editing ethics debate continues

By KAITLYN SUTOW

Gene editing is a very controversial topic due to the ethical implications. Is it right to genetically modify a human embryo? Because we do not know the long term effects of gene editing, most scientists are concerned with the possible results, while others want to use the editing to prevent genetic disorders and diseases.

In November of last year, a pair of genetically modified girls, named Lulu and Nana, were born, according to “China’s CRISPR twins might have had their brains inadvertently enhanced” in MIT Review.

The word spread, worrying and angering many scientists. The person who leads the project, He Jiankui, is a scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. Many people questioned his research prior to the alteration and found he did not contact anyone who deeply researched the gene removed, CCR5.  

A photo of the scientist He Jiankui who genetically altered the twins.
(via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:He_Jiankui.jpg)

The CCR5 gene is needed for HIV to enter the blood, so by removing it Jiankui hoped the twins would be immune to HIV and AIDS. There have also been other results after removing the gene in previous experiments on mice. The removal seemed to improve the mice’s memory and could possibly affect the girls’ brains.  

Many of the onlooking scientists think Jiankui modified the twins to enhance their intelligence, but He disputes all claims on the matter. He said he knew the brain effects possible with the alteration, but said it needed “independent verification.”

Others disagree, saying that the editing should be used to make changes to disease-causing genes. One example of this, explained by Sharon Begley, is a girl who had bones that “wouldn’t stay straight.” As she grew, her bones grew; they also rapidly deteriorated and were mainly made of cartilage.

The woman who suffers from this condition, Neena Nizar, has now passed on the condition to her two sons, Arshaan and Jahan Adams. Nizar is disappointed to see that the gene editing is prohibited, so now her sons will face the same pain and difficulty she had growing up.

A photo of Neena Nizar when she spoke at a ted talk about her condition.
(via https://www.flickr.com/photos/tedxmanipaluniversitydubai/8651581724)

Nizar wishes that she was even given the option of gene editing for her sons, but the altering could cause more problems and even change the human gene pool for future generations. Even though CRISPR has been shown to fix some genetic mutations, there is no guarantee it can fully solve their condition, which does not even have a proper diagnosis.

A majority of scientists agree that there is too much risk associated with altering human embryos, but there are some that are obsessed with “designer babies.” After the birth of the twin girls, CRISPR has been reevaluated, and a global moratorium has been called for when using the technology on reproduction.

Sources:

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612997/the-crispr-twins-had-their-brains-altered/

Categories: STEM

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