A decade or two ago, the idea of being able to modify embryos was straight out of a science-fiction movie. However, last November, Chinese scientist He Jiankui genetically modified twin girls’ embryos to have resistance to the HIV virus using a process called CRISPR. His actions have sparked a global panic, as many people feel that current regulations are not enough to keep the scientific community’s actions ethical.
To understand this issue, it is important to understand its individual components. CRISPR is a gene-editing tool that was discovered in 2007 and became widely used in 2013. Essentially, a scientist decides what portion of DNA they would like to alter, and transcribes the sequence into RNA. This RNA finds the portion of DNA with the specific code and then the Cas9 enzyme “cuts” the DNA, allowing a new sequence of DNA to take its place.
Dr. He used CRISPR Cas9 technology to try to block the HIV pathways in twin girls while they were still embryos. As this experiment was recent, the long-term effects of it are unclear. In addition, as these girls were not developed at the time of their gene editing, they did not give consent to have a treatment that could be detrimental to their health. Furthermore, looking at the Centers for Disease Control website, HIV is primarily acquired by the use of unsafe needles to inject drugs and sexual contact. Using clean needles and condoms can greatly decrease one’s risk of getting HIV, and if a HIV-positive person takes suppression medicines, the viral content of HIV in their blood can become undetectable. Dr. He’s actions gave the twin girls undue risk, with little possible benefit.
In the future, this method of gene editing may be used to prevent or treat genetic diseases, but people have little knowledge of the long-term implications of using this technology on embryos. At the moment, the lack of global legislation regarding this gene-editing technology leaves a lot to be wondered about the future of this tool. According to Victor Dzau who works in the United States National Academy of Medicine, “The silver lining is that the world was awakened by the conduct of Dr. He, and we are all working very, very hard with all good intentions to make sure that this doesn’t happen again—not in the fashion that He did it. And that someday, if and when the technology is ready—and I think all of us are very bullish about this technology—that it will be helping humankind in the right way, knowing the risks and knowing the benefits.” After Dr. He’s experiment, many are in favor of halting the use of CRISPR on human embryos for at least five more years, so more research can be done on the subject. However, legislation, which the world has seen little of, holds a stronger weight than mere recommendations. In Russia, Denis Rebrikov is planning to create CRISPR babies, and regulations in the country regarding his specific goals remain unclear. How will CRISPR embryo editing evolve in the coming decades? Will CRISPR gene editing be as common someday as IVF is today?