If you’ve ever dined in a Chinese restaurant, you know the menu usually gives you multiple choices. You could choose “two from Column A or one from Column B,” for example.
Well, now thanks to Chinese researchers you can customize your children in much the same way as you do a meal order.
Let’s say that you and everyone else in your family are blonde with blue eyes. If you really, really, really wanted your offspring to have raven-black hair and piercing green eyes, might you be tempted to place such an order with the local fertility specialist?
If you could, would you like to give your baby the genes of Albert Einstein? Maya Angelou? Both of them plus Tiger Woods?
Genetic engineering has come a long way, baby – especially in totalitarian Communist China. Despite international concerns over the ethics (not to mention the prudence) of genetically customizing children, Chinese scientists are going ahead with revolutionary gene modification therapies.
Altering human fetal DNA is rapidly becoming a science fact, although it may be a while before the practice becomes mainstream.
Critics caution that these zealous, ground-breaking scientists may be crossing the road without looking both ways for global consent and approval. Is a global disaster bearing down unforeseen?
Great Britain and the United States are following China’s lead in allowing the medical editing of DNA sequences. Other countries are sure to follow.
One expert, Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist commented, “If they’ve been doing it in China, we may see several [study results] manuscripts begin to appear.”
George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Children’s Hospital Boston in Massachusetts, added his concerns:
“The science is going forward before there’s been the general consensus after deliberation that such an approach is medically warranted.”
Thanks in large part to the unrelenting Chinese, this international controversy is quickly becoming moot since the technology and consumer desire are right here, right now. With no laws to prevent going forward, the human population, as we know it, may be about to change forever.
Today, most medical therapies target abnormal proteins associated with the disease to treat diseases. These abnormal proteins typically exist due to mutations in specific genes in the patient’s DNA. Past treatment methods never fixed the root cause of a disease by altering these genes directly.
A new gene-editing system known as CRISPR/Cas9 is being used to change, delete, or correct target areas of human DNA in order to treat diseases at their source.
CRISPR Therapeutics is the company responsible for “rapidly translating a revolutionary technology into transformative therapies.” The healthcare enterprise focuses on four main ways to apply gene-splicing therapies:
- Hemoglobinopathies – Treatment for inherited hemoglobinopathies ß-thalassemia and sickle cell disease (SCD) that arise from mutations in a gene that encodes a key component of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in blood.
- Immuno-Oncology – Creating the next generation of cell therapies for cancer enabled by gene editing
- In Vivo – Editing cells inside the body to treat genetically-defined diseases
- Regenerative Medicine – Using stem cells to repair or replace tissue or organ function lost due to disease, damage or age (gene editing)
The system consists of two parts: Cas9, an enzyme that cuts DNA and a Guide RNA whose sequence directs Cas9 to a specific location in the DNA where the edit should be made.
Cas9 associates with the Guide RNA to form a complex that can be easily and precisely targeted to a desired site in the DNA.
The CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing process begins when the complex recognizes and binds to a short segment of DNA adjacent to the target site. This initiates unwinding of the DNA helix which allows the Guide RNA to pair with the specific target sequence in the DNA. If the sequence is paired precisely, Cas9 cuts the DNA, forming a double-strand break.
Our cells respond to such breaks by activating natural DNA repair pathways. In some cases, a process called non-homologous end joining (NHEJ), results in the additional deletion of a few base pairs which disrupts the original DNA sequence and can cause gene inactivation.
Larger fragments of DNA can be removed, and corrections to DNA can be made. New genes can be inserted. The possibilities are limitless.
You say you’ve never heard of CRISPR or gene modification therapy? That’s not a big surprise, considering the ongoing flap over Monsanto’s GMO seeds and foods. The memory of cruel, human genetic experiments that occurred in Germany during World War II still makes people recoil in horror.
Another reason you might not have heard about this future-tech is that it has passed from theory to reality only very recently. Chinese researchers were the first, in 2015, to use CRISPR-editing tools to edit the genes of a human embryo to make them HIV-resistant.
The idea behind CRISPR dates back to 1993. Francisco Mojica described what is now known as the CRISPR locus, DNA sequences that share sets of sequences.
Ruud Jansen was the first to use the term CRISPR in print in 2002 after he had corresponded with Mojica. Ruud concluded that CRISPR is an adaptive immune system.
Fast forward to April 2015: a Chinese study group successfully modified a gene associated with a blood disease in human embryos. This news fueled a debate over the ethics of “modifying embryos and human reproductive cells, and led to calls for a moratorium on even such proof-of-principle research.”
In 2016, British scientists received official “permission to edit the genomes of human embryos for research.” Infertility is the target of this work.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., a heated patent battle started in 2014 over the legal rights to CRISPR. Harvard’s Broad Institute and MIT claimed they had originated the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system, not their rival, the University of California at Berkeley.
In February 2017, the U.S. Patent Office awarded the patent to the Broad Institute with a brief, single-sentence decision.
But Chinese fertility therapists at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen have been working with hopeful, volunteer couples, in order to create the first genetically-edited babies. Technology Review explained what the Chinese hope to achieve:
“They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.”
Chinese geneticist He Jiankui leads a team that uses CRISPR genetic modification technology to alter human embryos before inserting them into a female uterus. He maintains that “By correcting the disease genes … we human[s] can better live in the fast-changing environment.”
Scientists are famous for their social indifference. They work for scientific advancement. Many parents all over the world find the ability to equip their children with inborn defenses against inherited diseases to be quite appealing, regardless of ethical, moral, or political considerations.
But the next reasonable step, after medical prevention, is to use gene-altering methods to build in desirable attributes and strike out unwanted physical blemishes such as webbed toes or a big nose.
Is it a big stretch of the imagination to predict that a totalitarian government – say, China – would use genetic modification to birth armies of supersoldiers – or worse?
If anyone out there is disturbed by these thoughts, they would be well advised to speak up soon. The critics will debate while the geneticists and parents create.
It certainly looks like the day is coming soon when parents will be able to select “two from Column A or one from Column B” for their babies.