Chinese gene-editing experiment may have had unintended, unpredictable consequences

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Published: February 25, 2019 4:43:53 AM

The deletion has a significant influence on improving cognitive abilities in mice experiments.

Scientists also postulate that the deletion can be linked to faster recovery from brain stroke among humans and greater success in school. (Representational photo/Reuters)

Chinese researcher He Jiankui’s gene-editing experiment with the Chinese twins—Nana and Lulu—that earned him much censure, and possibly even disciplinary action by the Chinese government, may have had unintended consequences. Jiankui used CRISPR, a gene-editing tool, to eliminate the chances of the pair of twins contracting HIV from their biological father, an HIV-positive individual by deleting the CCR5 gene from the girls’ genome. The deletion, existing research shows, has significant influence on improving cognitive abilities in mice experiments. Scientists also postulate that the deletion can be linked to faster recovery from brain stroke among humans and greater success in school.

However, it is not as rosy as it may sound at the first instance. A neurobiologist quoted in an article in The MIT Technology Review believes that the simplest interpretation from the mice experiments can be that the mutation will impact the cognitive abilities in humans—and, crucially, it is difficult to say what the exact impact will be. This means, while there are chances that the twins could be blessed with superior IQ, it may be that the mutation could end up harming their intellect or other cognition-related functions. Given how, exceptional cognitive abilities in certain areas correlate strongly with impaired social skills, it could turn out to be far lesser than a blessing eventually. And, even if there are no noticeable ‘problems’, and the twins are endowed with superior intellect in the bargain, conducting experiments that produce live, mutated subjects, without having fully understood the consequences, is entirely unethical. It is also likely that, if the twins turn out to be intellectually gifted, along with being invulnerable to HIV, a race for designer babies may ensue. The world needs to accept that, for now, editing genes in embryos with the intention of seeing these through gestation to produce a live human being is a fraught proposition.

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