Gene editing may come at a price

The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) Annual Meeting takes place this week in Vienna. This is one of the world’s foremost conventions on scientific aspects of fertility. The Fertility Hub will be reporting on some of the outcomes from the meeting as it proceeds.

We kick off with a review of the future of assisted reproduction technology (ART), which as the century rolls on may well start to include aspects of gene editing.

The idea of designer babies used to be the stuff of science fiction. For instance, babies grown in bottles, cultured for their particular role in society, were an important aspect of the utopia/dystopia imagined by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel ‘Brave New World’.

However, the idea rapidly turned sour when the Nazis obsessed with their unhealthy ideas of race started investigating the science in extremely unethical and anti-human ways. Luckily for the world, the science in those days could not match the imagination of Huxley or the wishes of fanatics.

But that is no longer the case. Ever since the structure and role of DNA in the heredity of species and individuals was defined in the 1950s the potential for designer babies has been on the far horizon. That horizon is now, metaphorically within touching distance.

So it was late last year that the world’s first CRISPR babies were born into a schizophrenic storm of outrage, fear and hope for the future.

What is CRISPR?

Pronounced ‘crisper’, the acronym stands for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’. It is, quite simply, one of the biggest science stories of the decade.

In the past 9 years, scientists have figured out how to exploit a quirk in the immune systems of bacteria to edit genes in other organisms such as plants, mice, even humans.

With CRISPR, they can now make these edits quickly and cheaply, in days rather than weeks or months.

This opens up incredible opportunities

Want mushrooms that don’t brown easily? No problem. Already done. Want to cure anaemia in mice? Ditto. How about altering the genetic code of humans. Ditto. And THAT is what the storm was about.

The world’s first CRISPR babies, twin girls born in China, were specifically genetically modified to remove susceptibility to HIV infection. This was done because the girls’ father is HIV positive. And HIV is not the only disease that we can now think about protecting future generations from. What’s not to like?

Without getting into the minefield of ethical considerations, it also raises questions about whether or not we should edit babies for intelligence, athletic prowess or looks.

There are powerful reasons why we should proceed very slowly with the technology

  • * The CRISPR process can occasionally misfire and edit DNA in unexpected places, which in human cells might lead to cancer or even create new diseases
  • * Scientists have also demonstrated that CRISPR could be used, in theory, to modify not just a single organism but also an entire species. It’s an unnerving concept!
In fact, one pitfall may already have befallen the Chinese twins, in that their life expectation might have been reduced. This is because new evidence, following a study at Berkley University in the US, suggests that they may not make it past their 76th birthday.
  • The study found that individuals 
with a mutation on the CCR5 gene, the one edited in the twins for protection from HIV, had a 20% higher chance of death from any cause before the age of 76.

The study results should not be taken as definitive, however. The author of the study himself was quick to point out that statistical studies are prone to hidden flaws. The laws of chance may have the Chinese twins living to a ripe old age, even if they are at greater risk of dying younger than the rest of the population!

Yet the study DOES point to the need to proceed with great caution as this new technology unfolds. Over the next decade we are sure to see great advances and opportunities as our knowledge and experience of the CRISPR technology develops. Those seeking to use it in future, perhaps as part of ART therapy services need to be aware of the risks. The human race itself deserves protection from dangerous gene edits that might be introduced into the general population for generations to come.

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