Updated: Mar 7, 2019
The story of CRISPR technology and the first gene edited babies continues to make headlines around the world. He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who created the first genetically edited babies was recently fired from his position at the Southern University of Science and Technology and is currently under investigation by the Chinese government. In his highly controversial experiment, He used CRISPR-Cas9 system to mutate a gene that allows for the entry of HIV, attempting to make the babies HIV resistant. CRISPR-Cas9 (Clustered Regulated InterSpaced Palindromic Repeats) technology is a comprehensive method of genetic manipulation that can target specific areas of interest in DNA and introduce mutations, enhance or remove segments. Three years before the CRISPR babies, the first genetically modified human embryos were created the stem-cell researcher Junjiu Huang of Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, where his team used CRISPR to correct a blood disease. This research was so ethically controversial that journals such as Nature refused to publish the study and instead published commentary articles against such experiments. There are many ethical implications over the clinical use of CRISPR, since scientists believe this technology is too premature to be used in human reproductive experiments. Many believe it may also shift attitudes with respect to human evolution and what traits are more favorable.
Popular news and science magazines have used compelling visuals and sensational headlines to garner attention towards CRISPR and its potential use in creating gene edited progeny. A look at the magazine covers and headlines provides insight into the development of CRISPR technology over time and the hyping of its transformative potential. There are several distinct themes emerging in these news stories.
CRISPR and the coming of a post-natural world
This issue of Wired Magazine is one of the first headlines to suggest how the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology can eventually alter the way we live by using its DNA cut and paste mechanism to solve worldwide issues such as food scarcity and genetic disease prevention. CRISPR-Cas9 is described as a cheap tool that can move around genes from organisms as small as bacteria to humans. Using the technology has led to corrections in blindness mutations, metastasis, HIV resistant cells, and its potential in making crops bacterial resistant. It is suggested that the use of CRISPR technology may cause a revolutionary transition to a world where problems can be solved through genetic engineering. However, there is a warning that much is still unknown about its use and the consequences of using CRISPR on organisms may be unintended, such as wiping out entire species like malaria carrying mosquitoes.
Engineering the human race
MIT Technology Review’s May/June Issue discusses the ability of CRISPR-Cas9 to alter genetic information of human babies by editing DNA of embryo’s or egg and sperm cells. The article also focuses on the ethical implications, as the technology can allow to engineer a population of designer babies for those who can afford it. In the magazine, CRISPR is said to have the ability to fix mutations and prevent transmission of genetic disease within familial lines such as Cystic Fibrosis. While many countries have banned the use of CRISPR technology on germline cells, the United States has not prohibited such manipulations. Germline cells consist of the egg and sperm cells, which combine to make an embryo. Improving humans through the use of editing embryos is a realistic possibility, and although the procedure is controversial and looked down upon, modifications can be made. Experiments are being done to correct mutated BRCA1 gene, which causes breast cancer. The goal is to eventually correct mutations before children are produced.
This issue of The Economist considers the technical and ethical aspects of using CRISPR technology to boost traits in babies such as intelligence. The article discusses the prospects for human genetic enhancement and the notion of “designer babies” noting the ability of scientists enhance or modify specific aspects of DNA that code for these traits. Although we are still far from designer babies, tests are being done on embryonic cells using CRISPR in China that could one day be used in human therapeutics. The notion of designer babies also raises the question of whether the interests lie with the parents or their children when making these ethical decisions.
The Time Magazine explores the same theme of moving towards a future where individuals can be genetically modified for therapeutic or personal reasons. Feng Zhang was the first reported user of CRISPR technology on human cells and showed its potential use in human therapeutics. Using this technology has become so widespread that hundreds of labs across the country are conducting research on its effects of different organisms. The technology is described as having the ability to transition human evolution, as edited embryos would be able to pass their modifications to future generations. Because of its revolutionary applications, the magazine reports on a summit held in Napa Valley, where scientists proposed the discontinued use of CRISPR to modify human cells. The article warns about the possibility that children would be made in the preferences of the parents for height, athletic ability and intelligence. This complicates the issue even further, since individual autonomy and consent would be overlooked.
Anticipating the first CRISPR baby
Although the world’s first genetically edited baby using CRISPR-Cas9 was just recently created in China, there are huge discrepancies in laws around the world governing the technology. In countries like Canada, United Kingdom and Germany, research for CRISPR use on embryos are either banned or restricted, while clinical use is completely banned. Laws in the United States prohibit any national funding towards research of CRISPR technology on germline cells with no outright bans, while countries such as Japan and China have bans that are said to be “not legally binding”. The visual has a great way of explaining the laws, which in some cases are unenforceable guidelines. Because of inconsistencies in legislation, there is a lot of wiggle room for conducting unregulated research discreetly on germline cells and many anticipated an event such as He Jiankui’s experiment.
The return of eugenics
The Spectator highlights the ethical dilemma that babies will be engineered with traits and qualities that may or may not be more valued in society. Eugenics started with the idea that some people are strong, while others are weak, and that what we believe were the best qualities should be passed along, rather than qualities that are seen as inferior in order to improve society. This was at the heart of the Nazi ideology, but it seems these ideas may be making a comeback. Sooner or later, we will be able to screen and edit for a variety of traits, from hair color to personal characteristics. Making references to the history of eugenics, the article suggests where the moral problems lie with the use of CRISPR in in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Many believe this technology will open an avenue for “high tech consumer eugenics”, from which the more prosperous families can benefit.
New age of humanity
Over 8 million babies have been created since the introduction of the in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure. Will the same thing happen with CRISPR technology? It is certainly a possibility, as told by this issue of The New Scientist. Most scientists believe that this experiment was conducted far too soon, and that safety issues have yet to be resolved before allowing the use of CRISPR on humans. A key concern is the possible unintended mutations elsewhere in the genome of those who are edited by the technology. If embryonic genetic editing becomes accessible and popular enough, there could be an accumulation of mutations for future generations. For example, the twin girls created by He Jiankui using CRISPR technology may develop cancer later on as a result of undetected mutations. The new age of humanity comes at a cost and, although it seems as if we can use this technology to correct abilities of humans, it is still susceptible to many errors and these errors have not been investigated yet.
The ongoing development of assisted reproductive, screening and gene editing technologies have radically transformed human reproduction. What was once a physical reproduction process for all organisms, has now been brought to the lab with different ways to help individuals reproduce. In addition to CRISPR, there are other controversial developments such as mitochondrial replacement therapy. For individuals with mitochondrial linked genetic diseases, it is possible to use this replacement therapy in IVF to extract mitochondrial DNA from a healthy donor oocyte and insert it into the mother's egg cell, thus eliminating the risk of mutated mitochondria being passed down to the embryo. This procedure, often termed "three parent baby technology," allows couples to have healthy genetic offspring without the possibility of developing deadly mitochondrial disorders. With all of the technologies now being offered for those who want biological children, there should be more information offered as to what technologies are still in experimental or clinical phase. Stricter guidelines need to be implemented globally for CRISPR use on humans, so that gene edited babies are not made further in secret labs, before its long-term effects on human health are investigated.