January 15, 2019 | Jerry Bergman

Scientists Must Avoid the Slippery Slope of Designer Babies

Why Scientists Must Reject Tinkering with the Human Genome, Even for Beneficial Purposes

by Dr Jerry Bergman

A Chinese geneticist, Dr He Jiankui, has caused a firestorm for modifying babies’ genes using a technology called the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool.[1] Professor Jiankui is an associate professor in the Department of Biology of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. By using intelligent design to modify natural genes, the well-educated Chinese scientist hoped to improve the genetic package in two girls. CRISPR-Cas9 exploits existing genetic tools and technology, such as bacteriophages, that were designed by God to perform specific tasks. Ironically, evolutionists believe a massive number of largely random mutations, without the help of any intelligence, turned single celled creatures, such as bacteria, into modern humans. We evolved by mistake, they believe, with no design or plan.[2]

Uncharted Territory

In short, CRISPR and other technologies allow technicians to bring in genes from outside of the cell and incorporate them at specific locations inside a host cell. The report on the experiment said that Professor He Jiankui “helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies—twin girls by the pseudonyms Lulu and Nana—by altering their DNA while they were embryos to become resistant to future HIV infection.”[3] One major concern was the possibility that gene editing could have unforeseeable negative consequences down the road. The gene altering could adversely affect other genes, or may adversely affect the immune system. In short, it is an experiment into uncharted territory that could have disastrous effects on the twins in the future.

It may do only what it is designed to do: prevent them from contracting AIDS in the future, something we will not know unless they are exposed to the HIV virus after they are born. No one knows, and we will not know, until their lifespan is spent. It could also have negative consequences that we will never know about in these two girls, and will not know until we have a large enough sample to make some determination of the possible results, good or bad.

Human Guinea Pigs

All drugs have negative consequences called side effects. Some are mild, others lethal, but many are rare and depend on environmental and individual genetic contingencies of the drug recipient. The girls are guinea pigs and could be expected to blame the gene transplant on some problem they may have which actually had nothing to do with the genetic changes Professor He induced. Or they may suspect, without ever knowing for sure, that some problem they develop as they grow older was caused by the transplant.[4]

Pandora’s Box

One problem is that these CRISPR genetic changes are now in their germ cells, and will be passed on to the next generation, and the next as well, for who knows how long. These concerns were one of several reasons for the outrage, and the “response from the scientific community was immediate and censorious.[5] One of their concerns is that Professor He “put children in danger with his experiments.”[6] Furthermore, leading figures in the scientific and legal community, no doubt remembering the sadistic Nazi medical experiments,

called his work “unconscionable,” “not morally or ethically defensible,” “deeply disturbing,” “monstrous.” People questioned [Professor] He’s motives for the experiment and accused him of seeking fame and fortune—particularly when the Chinese researcher enlisted an American PR company to help release YouTube videos explaining his work. Since [Dr] He’s announcement, Chinese officials have placed him under house arrest in Shenzhen.[7]

The Ghost of Nazi Medical Experimentation

The concerns in this case are reminiscent of the experiments carried out by the scientists and professors in Nazi Germany that we today realize were often of little use, some even foolish, and always unethical. These experiments were attempted by highly qualified doctors, such as Josef Mengele, “Doctor Death,” best known for conducting morbid experimenting on humans. Mengele earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Munich and also a doctorate in medicine (MD) from the University of Frankfurt, graduating cum laude.[8] In one case, he attempted to cause a person’s eyes to turn blue by injecting blue dye into them. Mengele used the same indigo blue dye used today to dye blue jeans!The widespread press reports on the CRISPR genetic alterations will insure that these medical techniques are well known. The cover story of the January, 14, 2019 Time Magazine boasted “Gene editing, Uterus transplants, three biological parents: The Future of Babies.”[9]

It is significant that Professor He’s graduate training was in America. He received his Ph.D. in Biophysics under the supervision of Professor Michael W. Deem at Rice University. After completing his Ph.D., he did a postdoc with Professor Stephen Quake at Stanford University.

Good Intentions

The trial recruited couples who wanted to have children and, in order to participate, the man had to be HIV-positive and the woman uninfected.[10]  Professor He obtained the couple’s sperm and eggs to use for the in vitro fertilization, then edited the embryos’ genomes using CRISPR/Cas9. The editing targeted the CCR5 gene, which codes for a protein that HIV-1 uses to enter T-cells. He then implanted the edited zygotes in the womb of the woman who gave birth to twin girls in November of 2018.

If the CCR5 gene is mutated, the AIDS virus is unable to enter white blood cells called T-cells, thus the person with the mutated gene is believed to be immune to AIDS. The specific mutation in the gene (CCR5 Δ32) is found in a few people naturally, and this confers innate resistance to HIV-1.[11] CCR5 Δ32 is a 32-base-pair deletion (Δ means deletion) that introduces a premature stop codon into the CCR5 receptor locus, resulting in a nonfunctional receptor. The CCR5 receptor is required for M-tropic HIV-1 virus entry, the main virus that causes AIDS. M-tropic is the macrophage strain of HIV-1. A macrophage is a large phagocytic cell located either in tissues or with other mobile white blood cells, where they accumulate at sites of infection. It is a phagocytic cell, meaning it “eats” bacteria, pathogens or cellular debris.

How CRISPR/Cas9 Works

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and Cas9 is a gene silencer. The type II CRISPR mechanism is unique compared to other CRISPR systems, as only one Cas protein (Cas9) is required for gene silencing, which in this case silenced the CCR5 gene. This gene constructs the CCR5 protein receptor that is located on the cell wall of the T-Cell. In his experiment, Professor He has not introduced a new gene into the cell, but has caused damage to silence a specific gene that produces a protein that migrates to the cell surface of T-Cells involved in the immune system. The CCR5 protein functions as a receptor for chemokines, which are chemical messengers. Known or potential side effects of a damaged CCR5 receptor include impaired immune effectiveness.

CRISPR genes are essential for various tasks including to achieve adaptive immunity in certain bacteria and archaea, enabling the organisms to respond to, and eliminate, certain invading genetic material, such as in viruses. Three types of CRISPR mechanisms have been identified so far, and type II is currently the most studied. Type II cuts invading DNA from viruses or plasmids into small fragments, and then incorporates the fragments into a CRISPR locus (meaning location) amidst a series of short (around 20 base pair) repeats.

The loci targeted are then transcribed, meaning the DNA makes messenger RNA (mRNA). The mRNA transcripts are then used to generate small RNAs (crRNA – CRISPR RNA) that are used to guide effector endonucleases. These are enzymes that target invading virus DNA strands based on sequence complementarity. Professor He’s research used Transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALEN) restriction enzymes that can be engineered to cut very specific sequences of DNA, in this case the gene that makes the CCR5 T-Cell receptor. This probably-too-brief review is presented to help illustrate how complex the designed system is.

Where Now?

A major problem is that once these techniques are available to the scientific community, they will likely be used, and no doubt at times abused as well. The issue is, as a Murphy-style proverb quips, “Once you open a can of worms, the only way to re-can them is to get a bigger can.” Abuse by irresponsible scientists tinkering with designer genes could potentially affect not only the twin girls, but the entire human population. It sets loose heritable changes that, if beneficial to recipients, turns humanity into haves and have-nots. The have-nots could be treated as second-class citizens or, worse, undesirables. If deleterious, humanity will be stuck with irreversible damage inside the human genome. Both possibilities lead to a slippery slope that all scientists must determine to reject from the outset.

 [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pp17E4E-O8

[2] Lee, Sophia. 2019. A Question of Ethics. World. 34(1): 51-53. January 9. Online at https://world.wng.org/2019/01/a_question_of_ethics.

[3] Lee, Sophia. 2019. A Question of Ethics. World. 34(1): 51. January 9. On line at https://world.wng.org/2019/01/a_question_of_ethics.

[4] Cox, David Benjamin. 2015. Therapeutic genome editing: prospects and challenges. Nature Medicine  21:121–131.

[5] Lee, Sophia. 2019.

[6] Lee, Sophia. 2019.

[7] Lee, Sophia. 2019.

[8] Bergman, Jerry. Hitler and the Nazi Darwinian Worldview: How the Nazi Eugenic Crusade for a Superior Race Caused the Greatest Holocaust in World History. 2012. Kitchener, Ontario, Canada: Joshua Press.

[9] Time Magazine. 193(1); 32-45. January 14, 2019.

[10] Marchione, Marilyn. 2018. Chinese researcher claims first gene-edited babies. November 26. https://www.apnews.com/4997bb7aa36c45449b488e19ac83e86d.

[11] Belluck, Pam.  2018. “Chinese Scientist Who Says He Edited Babies’ Genes Defends His Work”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/28/world/asia/gene-editing-babies-he-jiankui.html. November 28.

Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology at several colleges and universities including for over 40 years at Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and books that include chapters that he authored, are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more of his articles on CEH, see his Author Profile.

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