The CRISPR Case

by Kallie Fell, CBC Research Associate on January 17, 2019

illustrated man walking up DNA spiral

After making a fresh cup of coffee, I sit down at my makeshift desk (aka my dining room table) and stare out the window at the tempestuous and grey ocean. Past what I can see and halfway across the world, one scientist has shaken the world and made waves in the scientific community. If you haven’t heard yet, He Jiankui has claimed that he successfully edited the DNA of twin baby girls forever. Like a director of a movie, he has chosen a scene that he did not like and cut it out of the film, never to be seen again.

How did he do it? With a toolbelt full of secrecy and a gene editing device called CRISPR.

Before I continue, I want to make it explicitly clear that I am not an expert on genetic engineering or embryonic development. I do have some training in gene editing and cloning as well as a basic understanding of reproductive physiology and molecular biology, but I am not an expert by any means. However, I don’t think it takes an expert to understand the danger when scientists like Jiankui use tools like CRISPR.

Unfortunately, Jiankui, was not the first scientist to use CRISPR on human embryos, but he is the first to implant these edited embryos into women. Now he has claimed that one of these women gave birth to twin girls! These are the first babies born with germline DNA edits- and they had no choice (but we will get to that in a moment)!!! The news was first reported by the Associated Press and MIT and it has completely surprised and upset the scientific community…

Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR pioneer and developer, says she was “horrified”…

The Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said the experiment by Jiankui was “profoundly disturbing”…

And one pro-gene-editing ethicist described Jiankui’s work as “monstrous.”

These are people who are pro-development, pro-technology, pro-health, and pro-CRISPR; needless to say, they aren’t thrilled.

Jiankui used CRISPR, specifically Crispr-Cas9, to disable or remove a gene called CCR5. This gene, CCR5, is responsible for making a protein that allows HIV to infect host cells. So, in theory, remove CCR5 and remove HIV’s ability to infect other cells in the body. Jiankui’s goal was to create babies who would be resistant to HIV infection. I can’t lie, that actually sounds amazing! Who wouldn’t want to be immune to HIV?

Of course, it’s not that easy. Here are just some problems:

  • CRISPR is error prone and can make unwanted edits, called “off targets.” There is a chance of introducing new and potentially harmful mutations. When you change or mutate DNA, you change genes, when you change genes, you change the proteins that the genes code for, when you change protein, you change cell form and function. Sometimes small changes can have bigger effects. One article I read suggested that these baby girls might be more susceptible to influenza and West Nile virus due to the roles that the edited CCR5 gene plays in the immune system.
  • The process isn’t efficient. CRISPR doesn’t always edit every cell in the embryo. It can also end up editing cells in different ways. Meaning that one embryo could have a mixture of cells. Some cells would be corrected and other cells would not; this is called a mosaic.
  • This was an expensive stunt for something like HIV. Yes, HIV is devastating and severe, but HIV can be treated or prevented with other, cheaper methods. Further, HIV affects less than 0.1% of the population in China.
  • Informed consent was grossly lacking. First and foremost, these baby girls never had the ability to consent to this ridiculous science project that would change their lives forever. Further, it has been reported that the women who were implanted with the embryos were misled and ill-informed. (Anyone else surprised by this? Me neither.)
  • Jiankui’s experiment was rogue and unaccountable. In 2017 Jennifer Lahl wrote an article warning us about rogue scientists. Here he is. Others have also reported that Jiankui and his team ignored global ethical and scientific advice.

Many news articles will tell you that it is still unclear if Jiankui did what he claims. We can only hope that this is a scam. It is my hope that Jiankui’s “monstrous” work is a nightmare where we all finally wake up to the dangers of applying CRISPR or any gene editing tool to our own precious future.

The Center for Bioethics and Culture has written about the gene editing tool CRISPR before. You can find and read those articles here or by entering “CRISPR” in the search bar.

Graphic by Freepik

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