The world was shocked when two genetically-edited twins were born last year. There are now calls to rethink the rulebook about the technology.
In late 2018, Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, shocked the global scientific community when he announced that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies.
Using gene-editing CRISPR technology, He targeted a gene called CCR5 to lower the odds of two twin girls contracting HIV. CCR5 produces a cell receptor through which the virus can reach other cells. Disabling it means that the cell receptors it produces are not strong enough for the virus to use.
Despite HE defending his work and stating that he had abided by globally-recognized guidelines, there are now calls for those guidelines to be revisited and amended, making them less ambiguous.
This week, the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing will commence public meetings to discuss a more detailed approach to germline editing. Germline editing refers to the process of editing DNA in embryos in a manner that prevents future offspring from contracting certain viruses or diseases.
President of the National Academy of Medicine in the United States, Dr. Victor Zhau, has stated that there are still many questions about gene editing that need to be answered. It being important to outline exactly what experiments must take place before CRISPR can be applied to humans. Given that the science is still in its infancy, scientists run the risk of tampering with the wrong DNA.
The term CRISPR refers to a collection genomes (genetic material) found within the DNA of living organisms. The method is based on an antiviral defense system called CRISPR-Cas9, which allows scientists to add or remove something from the DNA strand.
The technology has been experimented with since the turn of the 21st century, but it was in 2015 when ethical guidelines and standards were proposed to regulate the application of CRISPR in human subjects.
However, the technology is still considered to be in its infancy. Following He Jiankui’s announcement, calls were made for a global moratorium on genetically editing human embryos. Meanwhile, British scientists do have the go-ahead to do so, but they are forbidden from implanting the embryos, and all test embryos have to be destroyed within seven days.
Image: NHI Image Gallery