Beyond Ethics: Research Suggests CRISPR Babies’ Gene Edits Could be Harmful

It shocked the world in late 2018 when a Chinese researcher claimed to have been the first modify the genomes of the multiple embryos. Unsurprisingly, due to the considerable ethical questions and the generally ground-breaking nature of the procedure the researcher, He Jiankui, was met with widespread backlash and an investigation by the Chinese government that eventually lead to his dismissal from the university where he worked. Now, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley say that the gene edits made by Mr. He could be harmful to the individuals who underwent the treatment.

What was the procedure?

Mr. He used a gene editing method called CRISPR-Cas9 to modify the genomes of seven sets of parents. In each set of parents, the father was infected with HIV that was easily managed by today’s available HIV drugs. His idea was, that by disabling a gene called CCR5, he could make the offspring of each couple more resistant to the HIV infection.

The CCR5 gene codes for a protein that does have a number of known functions, one of which allows some strains of HIV to infect otherwise healthy immune cells. However, a rare mutation of the CCR5 gene called Delta 32 is understood to give some protection against HIV, which was what Mr. He was trying to introduce in the embryos.

Why are researchers worried?

Simply put, researchers are worried because we don’t the full role of CCR5 or what potentially harmful effects deactivating the gene might have. To try to get a better idea for what the potential benefits or harm might be, the Berkeley researchers took a look at records from the UK Biobank of children who were born with the same edits He Jiankui introduced. The analyzed more than 400,000 genomes and the associated health records to see what, if any, effects having two copies of the CCR5 gene would have.

What they found was surprising. Those who had the specific mutation had a statistically significant higher rate of death between the ages of 41 and 78 with a nearly four-fold increase in the risk of dying from the flu. The study highlights the gaps in our knowledge surrounding the role of CCR5 and what happens if the gene is deactivated.

Rasmus Nielsen, a UC Berkeley professor and a senior author of the paper that found the link, has this to say about the danger: “Beyond the many ethical issues involved with the CRISPR babies, the fact is that, right now, with current knowledge, it is still very dangerous to introduce mutations without knowing the full effect of what those mutations do.” He continued, “in this case, it is probably not a mutation that most people would want to have. You are actually, on average, worse off having it.”

Interested in Working in Gene Editing?

Due to its considerable potential to help change the outcomes for those negatively impacted by a genetic mutation, it’s no surprise that considerable research and development is going into gene editing processes and technologies. AP Biosciences is a leading staffing firm that specializes in placing mid- to senior-level technical professionals for both contract placements and direct hires. We work with top companies throughout the Northeast who are creating the next generation of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and biotech advancements. If you’re interested in learning more about our opportunities in the field of gene editing, please visit AP Biosciences or give us a call at 617.556.0105.