The history of mankind has seen the quest for the impossible, since time immemorial. In fact, it is the ability of humans to strive for perfection & to go beyond what is logically possible, that has made us the masters of the world, that we inherited from our primitive ancestors. Among all spheres of development that mankind has seen in the modern world, health sector is perhaps the most important one. Of course, if a person is not alive or is of not good health, all other advances & benefits of living in a world full of wonders ceases to have any meaning.
A person can enjoy the benefits of living in a free world of 21st century, only with a healthy body. But what would be the best way, to be healthy? Would it be, by having better treatment options, to treat different diseases? Or the ability of never falling sick? Which would be a better option? Of course, the answer is very evident. The quest for giving birth to such superhuman babies, brings us to the controversial newly successful experiment of creating designer babies.
November 25, 2018 would be soon remembered, as a red-letter day in medical profession. Although, some experts also strongly believe that, this day would rather go down in infamy, as the day when the pandora’s box was opened & a scientific experiment, that was once taboo, was no longer so.
On November 25, 2018 a scientist/geneticist from China – He Jiankui, declared that he has done the impossible. He announced, to an astounded world, that he produced HIV immune twin girls, from a father who is HIV positive. Before explaining, why this news sent shockwaves across the health community of the world, it would be better to explain in short, the various medical terms & their meanings, to people who may not be from medical background, but whose lives may be changed forever by this miraculous technique.
The Gene can be considered as a part of DNA, present in the cells of an individual, which controls the physical development and behaviour of an individual. This is passed from one generation to the next.
The full form is In Vitro Fertilisation, which in simple terms means, a medical procedure, where a human egg is fertilized by sperm, outside body.
The above synonyms, refer to a scientific procedure, where manipulation of an individual’s genes is done using biotechnological methods. This may involve insertion, removal, modification or replacement of genetic material of an individual (In Genome edition, these changes are done in specific previously identified locations).
CRISPR - Cas9 is a gene editing technique, that has revolutionized, the ability of scientists to edit DNA and the same was used by the Chinese team, for their desired goal.
The Chinese scientist – He Jiankui, claims to have used, a powerful gene editing technique (called as CRISPR gene editing technology), to create the worlds first genetically modified human babies. The scientist associated with Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, used gene editing technique, to modify a set of human embryos to create healthy twin girls, from a HIV positive father. Embryos created from sperm and eggs of the parents, were further subjected to gene surgery, which gave them protection from HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), before being implanted into the mother’s uterus.
The mother – “Grace” became pregnant by IVF technology, with a notable difference. After her husband’s sperm, was introduced to her eggs, a gene surgery was done; as described in a you tube video published on 25 November, 2018. Gene editing was done to disable a gene known as CCR5, which finally blocked the pathway through which AIDS virus enters the cells of the body (this was done in human embryos, for the first time). So, the twins immune to HIV virus were thus produced. It is also believed that the mentioned gene editing, would also give babies a protection from other disease like cholera and smallpox.
Speaking days later (after his initial declaration), at a genome editing summit, he again declared that a second genetically modified pregnancy is in its initial stages, and is under supervision, to see if it will last.
Dr He Jiankui has said, that he is very proud of his achievement. The reason for this, according to him, as that the father of the said babies, had given up all hope, to have children ever & was disillusioned with life. But, after the birth of the babies, he had his faith restored and promised to work hard & earn money to give a good life to his children (the two daughters) and his wife.
The scientist also said that 8 couples, where the men were HIV positive, had voluntarily entered the experiment on their own free will and since then only one couple had dropped out. 11 embryos were used in 6 attempts, before the twin pregnancy was achieved. This technique in future, would prevent HIV from being passed on, from effected parents to their children. Although the study has been presently halted, Dr Jiankui has categorically mentioned that he would have performed, the same procedure on his own child, had the situation so arisen.
The procedure may soon allow the scientist to create designer babies, by gene editing technology. This could be done by allowing certain traits to be expressed, while suppressing harmful characters, to get babies with desired characteristics.
The research can lead to development of a race of genetically modified superhumans, probably very soon. From changing the colours of the eyes or of the hairs, to increasing resistance and even eliminating some particularly dangerous diseases like – Parkinson’s disease and Down syndrome. This may give tremendous hope, for a better life in families, where both the parents have genes – that increases the risk of a birth defect.
A gene engineering in this situation before birth, would allow the removal of dangerous genes, maybe from an entire family tree over a period of time. This would be able to prevent the unfortunate incidents, that happened in the past, in 19th & 20th century, where royal families of many different European countries, suffered from the same genetic disorder (Haemophilia), due to marriage between aristocratic families of different countries.
The declaration was soon met with medical and moral dilemma across the world. Dr He Jiankui has faced stern criticism from scientists, ethicist and government. Use of gene editing for treatment & prevention of genetic diseases, was not anticipated by the scientific community, till next few decades. So, the scientific community has been shocked by the sudden progress of events. Many believe that this whole concept of designer babies may spiral out of control & the whole society may soon demand, for custom ordered babies.
The procedure used for this – germline editing, is rather a grey area in medical science, with many difficult ethical and legal issues associated with it. Gene editing is banned in most countries, even in developed nations like – USA & UK. It is believed that the DNA changes can pass on to the future generations and may give rise to unforeseen & unfortunate side effects.
The said scientist was very secretive about his work and the research has not yet been verified or published in any scientific journal. His work is yet to be peer reviewed. Hence many scientists remain sceptic about the authenticity of the claims and its legal validity of the procedure. His unpaid leave from Sothern University of Science and Technology, from February 2018 has made the claim, more enigmatic, as the University denies its association or any kind of involvement, with the experiment. However, Shenzhen Harmonicare Women’s and Children’s Hospital did approve the experiment of the scientist & his team but neither the research was conducted in the institute, nor were the babies, delivered in the said hospital.
China’s National Health Commission, has reportedly requested health commission of Guangdong province for undertaking an investigation into the scientist’s work. Scientist from far and wide are criticising the work of the Chinese scientist. Many believe that, these kinds of experimental procedures have more risks than any actual chance of potential benefit. Even criticism in China for the Chinese scientist is visibly obvious, as more than 140 scientists, working in fields related to HIV treatment, signed a joint statement opposing He’s work.
The unpredictable & potentially deleterious effects of germline editing, on future generations, is causing many to be apprehensive. Sceptic experts believe that unintended genetic consequences, may arise from such procedures, that may be even more dangerous, than the diseases, that are being targeted for eradication. Routine use of these kind of procedure may lead to social divisions, where genetically advantaged people may have enhanced characteristics – in strength, intelligence, beauty and even change of gender, which they can use to discriminate against other less fortunate individuals.
It is quite obvious that concept of designer babies, is no longer restricted to science fiction or Hollywood movies. Dr He Jiankui, declaration about creating the world’s first gene edited babies, has brought this mythical concept into our daily life (if it indeed is true & verified by expert committee). However, the world is not yet decided if this should be a cause of concern or a reason for celebration. Although it is very obvious that as the technology & expertise on the subject increases with time, the scope of use will increase much more than just disease prevention.
It is the evolution of humans as a person & overall as a society, that have made many impossible goals possible. Finally, we may be entering a transition era, where we would be forced to acknowledge that gene editing has come out of the science fiction domain into a dominating force in our real lives. No one has been yet successful in stopping the tide of time & it is quite probable, that each successive progressing year, would bring forward more sophisticated gene editing technology to the forefront. Only time would tell, if Dr HE Jiankui will go down in history, as a hero who took the world to the next higher step in evolution, or one step closer to the path of doom.
(Disclaimer – As this article has been written, within a fortnight of the revolutionary declaration, so many associated events & reactions of experts, are still unfolding. It is quite obvious, that it will take some more time, before the entire consequences of the study are obvious & gamut of its effects becomes visible. The story is yet to end.)