Gene Edited Baby: Should We Play God and Edit Life?

Gene edited baby cover design

Humans are running at the forefront of technology. Never have humans lived such a comfortable life. We have solutions for everything. With advanced engineering to cutting edge space-programs. So now that we have reached this far, should gene edited babies like Lulu and Nana become common? Should we start editing human genes and making perfect healthy babies? Well someone already did it. 

Creating the perfect human is a dream for many scientists. And not just scientists, but we as humans also want to get that super vaccine that would give immunity for all the known diseases. So where do the morality and ethics lie when it comes to editing the genes of human embryos that grow into babies? 

What is Gene Editing

Humans have DNA. Not just humans, but every living and semi-living things such as a virus (link) also have DNA or RNA. This DNA and RNA have many portions which we call genes. These genes are the functional units of our DNA. Genes are responsible for everything, from your ability to digest milk to your skin color and height. Some genes are also responsible for many genetic disorders. They are the codes that make your body. 

These genes can be edited by various methods (discussed later). Adding or removing a mutation in a gene can result in multiple conditions. It could be good and it could be bad. The catch is that the good can be breakthrough good and bad could be destructive bad. And this is where the problem is. 

The Gene edited baby 

Yes, what may sound like science fiction isn’t anymore, be it for good or bad. The first living gene edited baby is alive and if sources are to be believed, they are healthy. But the scientists who carried the experiment is not. He is currently in jail, serving 3 years for the crimes he committed. 

The scientist who did this is named He Jiankui is a Chinese scientist and professor working at the Southern University of Science and Technology. Gene editing had already been done in 2014, so He Jiankui knew what he was doing. Instead of doing the experiments on embryos that would never develop into fetuses, he did it on IVF embryos with deceits and lies. 

When MIT found out about the unethical testing on humans by He, he had nothing but one option. One the day, on 25 November 2018, Jiankui uploaded 5 videos on YouTube, revealing that two gene edited babies Lulu and Nana (pseudonyms) were born in October 2018.

What He Jiankui did with CRISPR

Jiankui recruited some candidates for the IVF reproduction requirement who were also suffering from HIV. Jiankui needed volunteers and to get them, he offered to pay for the IVF treatment, a hefty up to 280,000 yuan (US$42,000). But it was a non-refundable deal. The candidates could not drop out. They agreed. The year was 2017. 

He Jiankui in his video of gene edited baby
He Jiankui. Image: The He Lab. CC-BY 3.0

He took the eggs of seven HIV-negative mothers and sperms of seven HIV-positive fathers. The goal was to make a gene edited baby that would be immune to HIV which meant the baby would not have AIDS. This was an ambitious goal.

It was later revealed that the volunteers were given a consent form to sign, but further examination revealed that all the information was not revealed completely. They were not made aware of the possible issues and risks and the long term uncertainty in the health of the babies. It was also revealed that the Jiankui and team lied about applying for an ethics license. The hospital Shenzhen HarMoniCare Women and Children’s Hospital denied that any such request was never made. And he faced repercussions. He was fired from his University.

What does Gene edited baby mean?

Gene edited baby could mean anything, depending on the type of genes edited. But when we are talking about Lulu and Nan, the gene-editing done was on the CCR5 gene. This gene stands for C-C chemokine receptor type 5 and is present in Chromosome 3. The interesting part about this gene is in some people, there is a deletion of some part of the gene. People who have a pair of this mutation are immune against HIV AIDS. 

A woman working with test tubes
IVF takes place in test-tubes, also called test-tube babies.

He Jiankui wanted to artificially add this mutation in these gene edited babies so that they can have immunity against HIV. The mutation changes the protein on the white blood cells. This is the protein that HIV uses to enter inside the cells. Change the protein and HIV can’t infect you. Sounds too good to be true right? It is. At least at this time.

The risks of gene editing in humans

Human genetics is very complicated. It may sound very tempting to change a gene like CCR5 and get rid of HIV AIDS but it isn’t that simple. First of all, gene editing isn’t that advanced. One change in a gene can cause a domino effect and result in some dangerous and fatal change in another gene.
Take the example of the change done in the gene edited babies, Lulu and Nana. The CCR5 mutation may result in HIV resistance, but it also makes them susceptible to the West Nile virus. This is what we know. Who knows what other ill-effects it may have? There is a lack of proper testing. We are talking about changing the natural genetic makeup of humans. We need to observe such changes for years to make sure they are safe. Any recessive (harmful) mutation might enter the gene pool and cause devastation on an unprecedented scale. 

How to make CRISPR babies 

There may be different methods of editing genes, but CRISPR/Cas9 is the more advanced and precise method of doing so. If other gene-editing were like operating using scissors, CRISPR is like a fine microscopic needle.

CRISPR Cas9 was taken from bacteria that use it to identify viruses and then using CRISPR, they cut the viral DNA/RNA bit from the viral genome. CRISPR Cas 9 is a procedure that scientists can use to locate and cut even single units of DNA. But it isn’t that easy to just cut-off DNA segments from live human beings or fetuses who’ll develop into babies.

CRISPR Cas9 gene editing
The mechanism of CRISPR Cas9. Image: Kaidor. Public Domain

Here are the surface problems we have associated with gene-editing:

  • We may know about some genes causing some effects, but how these genes interact with each other and what results they produce is complicated and needs more research. So editing one can and most certainly will affect some other gene. 
  • Gene editing is not that advanced at the moment. We may have found a powerful tool but we still don’t know how to properly use it. Like using CRISPR, the method is precise, but we still don’t know how to accurately point it to specific genes. 
  • The ability to change the DNA of humans can result in unregulated and unrestricted experiments on humans, many of which will be inhumane, resulting in deformed and infirm fetuses. This is just morally wrong. 
  • Ethical issues with CRISPR Cas9 and gene editing is something that cannot be ignored. Should we start doing the job of nature? Is it correct to decide the genetics of someone else? 

Designer Babies 

One of the major ethical issues with a gene edited baby is the rise of designer babies. If you think people are not going to make cosmetic changes in their babies due to ethical reasons, you are mistaken. There will be hundreds of people who’d be willing to tinker with the DNA of fetuses to make unnecessary changes like height, skin color, hair content, etc.
These designer babies whose genes have been manipulated could have a greater impact on their health. We know that genes play an important role in the mental make-up of humans. So what if a change in the genes for height might increase the chances of the person getting schizophrenia?

Automated injections
Soon babies maybe produced in assembly line like in A Brave New World?”

We know that Lulu and Nana are the first gene edited babies. Although it was reported that both the children were healthy, we need to monitor them for their entire life to see what gene editing can influence at different ages.

Gene editing in humans is a tempting field. To be honest, it could be one of the most beneficial tools for humans, even more, beneficial than anti-biotic! But there are major precautions we need to take before we start editing life. It is necessary to have painstakingly long tests to know that what we are venturing into is safe albeit risks will always be there. 

Why is Gene editing important?

It may sound inhuman or full of hubris that humans now want to edit themselves, but it could be more important than we think. Only if gene editing, be it CRISPR Cas9 editing or any other method, is heavily regulated and inspected by a global organization. Upon the consent of experts and the allowance of specific genetic modification, gene editing could make humans immune to every disease, be it infectious or genetic. 

Gene edited babies are both red and green. Red for stopping and green for continuing.

I know I am moving towards fantasy than facts, but with proper resource allocation and a combined effort could make it possible, at least up to some extent. Thinking about a population immune to Alzheimer’s or HIV-AIDS seems like a beautiful dream. Gene editing could make this dream come true. 

Maybe at the right time, with the right tools and with the right intentions, we can make a gene edited baby that would be immune to all these diseases. Whatever He Jiankui did was wrong, even though his intentions were right. And of course there will be risk associated with every new technology and ideas, but it is all about making the merits more than the demerits of the technology and gene editing is one such technology we direly need. 

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