The struggle to create people with protective genes continues with some Chinese scientists trying to make HIV-proof embryos. Though unsuccessful, it marks the second time researchers in this region have tried to make genetically modified human embryos. The research led by Yong Fan, a researcher at Guangzhou Medical University collected more than 200 one-cell embryos and tried to alter their DNA by introducing a gene that is resistant to HIV infection.
The scientist tried to edit the CCR5 gene in the human embryo. This gene is responsible for making people resistant to HIV that causes AIDS though it is only available to a handful of individuals. The reason for the resistance is that it does not make a protein that HIV needs to hijack the immune cells.Fan and his team used a gene-editing method known as CRISPR to alter the DNA in the embryo to the protective version CCR5.
Doctors in Berlin had tried to demonstrate the effect of CCR5 gene by introducing it to an infected patient through a bone marrow transplant. The man who was known as the Berlin patient was cured of HIV.
Fan’s team noted that they believe making genetically modified babies should be strictly prohibited but only until the technology is perfected. They further pointed out that they think it is necessary to keep developing and improving the techniques since it could provide a solution for genetic diseases and improve human health.
Resistance has coupled Gene editing though some scientists still push on to make the technology more efficient. Researcher led by Dr. Kathy Niakan, who works at Francis Crick Institute in London, were granted a license to cut and paste the DNA of donated embryos as part of an investigation into a miscarriage. Dr. David Kingwho is the director of the watchdog group Human Genetics Alert, noted that the research would only allow scientist to refine the techniques or to create genetically modified babies, and many Government’s expert advisers were in favour of allowing it.
About one year ago, a group in Guangzhou noted that they had altered embryos in an attempt to repair genetic defect associated with blood disease beta thalassemia. One day, it might be possible that gene editing might be like a vaccine though introduced earlier on before birth. There is an extensive list of genes that people are expected to demand in their children including HIV resistance. One DNA change for instance seems to prevent completely Alzheimer’s while another results in twice the muscle size. That’s is still way off with Fan’s team only reporting that the only managed to edit successfully a handful of embryos, and these ended up as mosaics – mix of cells, some had the new gene and some didn’t.
Gene editing is always faced with ethical debates. Last December U.S. National Academy of Sciences, British and some Chinese scientist leaders noted that any attempt to create a gene-edited baby would be irresponsible. In February, this year U.S. official called gene editing a weapon of mass destruction.
Featured image credit: M.I.T review