safe from hiv: Designer babies?
By Samantha Wu, 2/12/19
Earlier this year, we learned something remarkable. Remarkable, frightening, and possibly a turning point for ethics and science- not only for the United States, but for the rest of the world. He Jiankui, a scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, successfully genetically modified human embryos.
Twin girls Lulu and Nana were born a few months ago, in early November, to parents Grace and Mark. Mark is HIV-positive- but Lulu and Nana are not. The genetic procedure the girls underwent was called CRISPRcas9. CRISPR is a family of gene sequences found within most prokaryotic organisms. CRISPRcas9 is a relatively new piece of technology that allows scientists to edit parts of the genome by removing or adding parts of the DNA sequence. CRISPRcas9 uses enzyme Cas9 to cut the DNA strands, and nucleic acid RNA to bind to the DNA and guide Cas9 to the right cutting point. According to Jiankui, the surgery "removed a doorway through which HIV enter to infect people". Jiankui's experiment involved 16 edited embryos. Anywhere from seven to eleven of these embryos were implanted into volunteers.
The social backlash from Jiankui's actions have been enormous, even within Jiankui's own country and community. Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology put out a statement saying they had no knowledge of Jiankui's experiments, as they were against the University's academic ethics. "It is premature at this stage of technology", said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a scientist at the University of Health and Science in Oregon. "The risks... seem to outweigh the potential benefits", wrote Feng Zhang, an expert on CRISPR at MIT.
There are concerns about the ethics of creating a child with modified DNA if that DNA can be passed down for generations. Some fear the eventual creation of a "designer baby", or a person genetically modified to be more attractive, intelligent, and physically capable. "If it's true as reported, then it's an extremely premature and questionable experiment in creating genetically modified children," agreed Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. But Jiankui continued to defend his research and work, saying "I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology. And I am willing to take the criticism for them."
Jiankui's discoveries and forays into a previously unexplored field have brought us to a turning point and a tough decision. Would genetically modifying babies bring our society to a point in which everything is based upon your genes and surgery? "Throwing open the door to a society of genetic haves and have-nots undermines our chances for a fair and just future", says Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society. Or maybe Jiankui is paving a way to the future, one which society is unwilling to accept.