Are there CRISPR-modified human babies now or not? I was waiting to write about this story in hope that it might get a little more clear, but so far that doesn’t seem to be happening. So here we go. What we know so far is that He Jiankui, a researcher from Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology, claims to have used CRISPR to alter human embryos in vitro, and that these were later implanted and brought to term: twin girls with the CCR5 gene edited out.
No one was expecting this. Or rather, everyone was expecting something like it at some point, but the world was not expecting it on Monday morning. But perhaps some people were? This article by Antonio Regaldo in Technology Review (dated November 25th) had the rumblings of the work in it, and in hindsight is quite interesting indeed. A lot of people have known that something was up, apparently. According to Stat, He had given a talk last year in which he described human embryo CRISPR work, but with no mention of using it to produce human babies just yet. A Rice University researcher (Michael Deem) says that he was working with the Shenzhen team and was present when the people involved gave their consent. Here’s another news roundup as of Tuesday. Prof. He apparently had discussed the implications of such experiments with many people over the last couple of years.
The SUST people certainly are acting as if they’d been blindsided by the news, with a press release saying that they had no knowledge of such an experiment (which they call a serious violation of academic ethics), that Dr. He had been on leave without pay since last February (reasons unspecified), and that the work appears to have been conducted at some off-site location. Note, however, that this timing means that the human embryo implantation may well have occurred while he was still on the faculty; the twins are said to have been born several weeks ago. Meanwhile, at least 100 prominent Chinese researchers have signed a public statement against this work and condemning He for having tried it. There were initial reports of oddities about the consent and review-board paperwork on all this, with some saying that the people involved were only told that they were involved in a study of HIV vaccines or that signatures were forged, but I haven’t seen as much follow-up on those yet. At any rate, He is set to speak very soon in Hong Kong at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, and won’t that be a circus?
At this point, though, I’d say odds are very much in favor of these genetically altered babies having been produced as described. George Church says that he has seen the data, including multiple sequencing runs, and believes that Dr. He has probably done what he says he’s done. This has been possible for some time; it’s just that no one has been foolhardy enough to try it. If Dr. He is expecting accolades as some sort of father of human genetic engineering, I hope he has a long wait. This is not a time for congratulations. Everyone has been standing around looking at this weapon; He Jiankui is just the guy who walked up and pulled the trigger before anyone was quite clear where the thing was aimed.
And let’s talk about that for a moment: CCR5? That’s a chemokine receptor of the immune system, well-known for its role in HIV’s infection mechanism. The report is that the twin girls were born to an HIV-positive father, but still – that doesn’t mean at all that the babies would have contracted the disease, and deletion of CCR5 itself may not be harmless either (greater susceptibility to other viral infections). So this is an odd choice. I’m pretty sure everyone expected the first human embryo modifications would correct something that would otherwise be fatal, an experiment that would seem ethically more defensible.
The problem is, for all we know about CRISPR technology, there are still plenty of things that we don’t know, and things that we don’t even know that we don’t know. The human genome is large, human embryonic development is complex, and CRISPR is not a magic knife of perfection (or certainly not yet). If these two girls have indeed been genetically altered and they grow up without some unexpected problems, it will simply mean that they (and Dr. He) got lucky, and that’s no way to handle the lives of innocent human beings.
So put me down on the side of those saying that this experiment should not have been done yet. We’re going to alter alter the human genome, of that I have no doubt. But there was no reason to alter it now, like this, under these conditions. He Jiankui has just made life more complicated for everyone working in the field, and for what?