Intellectual PropertyNews

Brave New World or TEOTWAWKI — CRISPR Babies on the Way

By November 26, 2018 March 13th, 2019 No Comments
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I know I usually write on topics of interest to small business.  But this is important. 

AP reported: “A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life. “  Let me repeat that “capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

CRISPR babies have been on the threshold for some time now.  CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which are the hallmark of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology. In the field of genome engineering, the term “CRISPR” or “CRISPR-Cas9” is often used loosely to refer to the various CRISPR-Cas9 and -CPF1, (and other) systems that can be programmed to target specific stretches of genetic code and to edit DNA at precise locations, as well as for other purposes, such as for new diagnostic tools. With these systems, researchers can permanently modify genes in living cells and organisms and, in the future, may make it possible to correct mutations at precise locations in the human genome in order to treat genetic causes of disease

Associated Press explained that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, had studied in the United States before returning to his homeland to open a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen.   The experiment itself involved the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month.

After practicing on editing mice and monkey embryos for a few years, Dr. He focused on embryo gene editing for HIV. The goal was to disable a gene called CCR5 that forms a protein doorway that allows HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter a cell. The father of the twins was HIV positive and the mother was not. While HIV infections can now be treated by standard HIV medicines, the idea was to offer couples affected by HIV the opportunity to bear a child that might be protected from HIV which is extremely stigmatized in China.

There is no independent confirmation of Dr. He’s claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be peer-reviewed by other experts. If true it would be a remarkable medical achievement. Also a controversial one. Using a genetically engineered embryo to establish a pregnancy would be illegal in the United States and much of Europe. As noted by the AP some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.

It’s “unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.  “This is far too premature,” said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. “We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal.”

Underlying these experiments is a debate in the scientific community about how evolution can be shaped by science. The natural mutation that disables CCR5 is relatively common in many locations, but not in China. Distributing the genetic trait around the world—in some populations but not in others—highlights how genetic engineering might pick the most useful inventions discovered by evolution over the eons in different locations and bring them together in tomorrow’s children.  Such thinking could yield people who have only the luckiest genes and never suffer Alzheimer’s, heart disease, or certain infections.

Brave new world.  Or TEOTWAWKI.   Only time will tell.