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Pandora’s Box of Genome Editing Opened After China’s Claim of World’s First Designer Babies

Editing human genes is controversial, with most countries banning the editing of genes in embryos since this could alter other genes and be passed onto future generations, with unforeseen effects.

Aniruddha Ghosal | News18.com

Updated:November 27, 2018, 10:01 PM IST
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Pandora’s Box of Genome Editing Opened After China’s Claim of World’s First Designer Babies
Scientist He Jiankui shows "The Human Genome", a book he edited, at his company Direct Genomics in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China August 4, 2016.
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After a Chinese scientist claimed that he had succeeded in creating the world's first genetically edited babies, with the ability to resist an HIV infection, the country launched an investigation amidst global outrage.

Once the realm of science fiction, tinkering with genes accurately is now possible through a technique called CRISPR-Cas9. The accuracy with which genes can be cut and replaced has led to scientists all over the world adopting it. The possibilities, potentially are endless: from stopping inherited disease to bringing extinct species back to life.

But that isn't necessarily a good thing.

After Chinese researcher He Jiankui of Shenzhen posted a video on Sunday announcing the birth of twin girls, Lulu and Nana, whose DNA had been edited to potentially prevent a future HIV infection, Chinese scientists issued a joint statement criticizing the move as "madness" and urging authorities to close the "Pandora's Box".

Their fears aren't without reason. Editing human genes is controversial, with most countries banning the editing of genes in embryos since this could alter other genes and be passed onto future generations, with unforeseen effects. China, unlike other countries that staved off from human trials, has gone ahead with the research. The country, that is attempting to create the world's largest DNA database, was also the first to inject modified cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer.

What is Genome Editing?

Nearly all the cells of any living being consists of DNA, a molecule passed on from generation to generation through reproduction. The DNA is the foundation for live. The genome is the entire sequence of DNA and includes genes: sequences of DNA that are involved in the production of proteins that are required to carry out different biological functions.

In other words, the genome of different organisms has an encoded set of instructions and messages within its DNA sequence. By editing the genome, it is possible to change those sequences and thereby, changing those messages. By inserting a cut, or a break within the DNA, it is possible to trick the cell's natural DNA repair mechanisms to kick in and introduce the changes that one wants.

The technique CRISPR-Cas9 creates the means to do so.

What is CRISPR-Cas9?

Simple and powerful, the CRISPR-Cas9 or CRISPR (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a technology that allows researchers to easily alter these DNA sequences. Like a pair of molecular scissors, the protein Case9 allows targeted DNA strands to be cut.

This technology was adapted from the natural defence mechanisms of bacteria which use Cas proteins, including Cas9, to counter viral attacks by slicing and destroying DNA strands of foreign bodies. It wasn't until 2017, when a team of researchers led by Mikihiro Shibata of Kanazawa University and Hiroshi Nishimasu of the University of Tokyo, published a paper in the journal Natural Communications that people saw what this process looked like.

What are the benefits?

The technology has already been used in the agricultural industries to create probiotic cultures and also vaccinate cultures, including yogurt from viruses. Research is also on to improve the agricultural yield, arming it against drought and spiking the nutritional content.

The potential though, is quite literally, endless.

For instance, the elimination of genes could lead to the eradication of diseases such as heart illness and Alzheimer's. Inherited diseases like Huntington's could, quite simply, be snipped off the gene pool. Designer babies, in theory, could be 'created' to have specific traits, ranging from eye color to muscularity.

The technology isn't restricted to human being and could be applied on animals. So for instance, species such as the Tasmanian devil which is threatened by an infectious disease could be protected, while extinct species could theoretically be brought back to life?

What are the concerns?

Putting aside the fact that the science and our understanding of possible mutations and its long-term impact on a gene pool still remain nascent, the moral and ethical concerns of gene editing are myriad.

Take for instance, creating 'designer babies'. While Chinese researcher He Jiankui's claims remain untested, most agree that it is theoretically possible to modify genes to inject certain traits in babies. But researchers argue that it is impossible to know what ripple effect changing a certain gene could have and such a change could be inherited and won't be isolated to a single person, community or even country.

Moreover, such technology could lead to the dystopic situation of parents - with the financial means to do so - attempting to give their children the 'best start possible' in life, tailoring genes to alter appearance, intelligence and physicality. The gaps that exist in society due to inequality in terms of wealth could potentially be cemented through genes.

Even something as seemingly noble as 'curing disease' has moral implications. What conditions should one treat? And what if someone doesn't want to be 'cured'? Such concerns aren’t without precedent. Adolf Hitler’s vision of Nazi Eugenics had famously sought to preserve the purity of Aryan race by removing those from society that were deemed to have ‘hereditary diseases’.

The National Academy of Sciences Engineering and Medicine identified some key issues: "the risks of inaccurate editing", "the difficulty of predicting harmful effects that genetic changes may have", "implications for both the individual and the future generations", "the fact that, once introduced into the human population, genetic alterations would be difficult to remove and would not remain within any single community or country" the possibility of increasing "social inequalities" or its use for coercion and "the moral and ethical considerations in purposefully altering human evolution".

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