This started out as an update and now it’s something else. What follows is a brief introduction to the Chinese CRISPR twins; a brief examination of parents, children, and competitiveness; and, finally, a suggestion that genes may not be what we thought. I also include a discussion about how some think scientists should respond when they know beforehand that one of their kin is crossing an ethical line. Basically, this is a complex topic and I am attempting to interweave a number of competing lines of query into one narrative about human nature and the latest genetics obsession.
Introduction to the Chinese CRISPR twins
Back in November 2018 I covered the story about the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui , who had used CRISPR technology to edit genes in embryos that were subsequently implanted in a waiting mother (apparently there could be as many as eight mothers) with the babies being brought to term despite an international agreement (of sorts) not to do that kind of work. At this time, we know of the twins, Lulu and Nana but, by now, there may be more babies. (I have much more detail about the initial controversies in my November 28, 2018 posting.)
It seems the drama has yet to finish unfolding. There may be another consequence of He’s genetic tinkering.
Could the CRISPR babies, Lulu and Nana, have enhanced cognitive abilities?
Yes, according to Antonio Regalado’s February 21, 2019 article (behind a paywall) for MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review, those engineered babies may have enhanced abilities for learning and remembering.
For those of us who can’t get beyond the paywall, others have been successful. Josh Gabbatiss in his February 22, 2019 article for independent.co.uk provides some detail,
The world’s first gene edited babies may have had their brains unintentionally altered – and perhaps cognitively enhanced – as a result of the controversial treatment undertaken by a team of Chinese scientists.
Dr He Jiankui and his team allegedly deleted a gene from a number of human embryos before implanting them in their mothers, a move greeted with horror by the global scientific community. The only known successful birth so far is the case of twin girls Nana and Lulu.
The now disgraced scientist claimed that he removed a gene called CCR5 [emphasis mine] from their embroyos in an effort to make the twins resistant to infection by HIV.
But another twist in the saga has now emerged after a new paper provided more evidence that the impact of CCR5 deletion reaches far beyond protection against dangerous viruses – people who naturally lack this gene appear to recover more quickly from strokes, and even go further in school. [emphasis mine]
Dr Alcino Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped identify this role for CCR5 said the work undertaken by Dr Jiankui likely did change the girls’ brains.
“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” he told the MIT Technology Review.
The connection immediately raised concerns that the gene was targeted due to its known links with intelligence, which Dr Silva said was his immediate response when he heard the news.
… there is no evidence that this was Dr Jiankui’s goal and at a press conference organised after the initial news broke, he said he was aware of the work but was “against using genome editing for enhancement”.
Claire Maldarelli’s February 22, 2019 article for Popular Science provides more information about the CCR5 gene/protein (Note: Links have been removed),
CCR5 is a protein that sits on the surface of white blood cells, a major component of the human immune system. There, it allows HIV to enter and infect a cell. A chunk of the human population naturally carries a mutation that makes CCR5 nonfunctional (one study found that 10 percent of Europeans have this mutation), which often results in a smaller protein size and one that isn’t located on the outside of the cell, preventing HIV from ever entering and infecting the human immune system.
The goal of the Chinese researchers’ work, led by He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology located in Shenzhen, was to tweak the embryos’ genome to lack CCR5, ensuring the babies would be immune to HIV.
But genetics is rarely that simple.
In recent years, the CCR5 gene has been a target of ongoing research, and not just for its relationship to HIV. In an attempt to understand what influences memory formation and learning in the brain, a group of researchers at UCLA found that lowering the levels of CCR5 production enhanced both learning and memory formation. This connection led those researchers to think that CCR5 could be a good drug target for helping stroke victims recover: Relearning how to move, walk, and talk is a key component to stroke rehabilitation.
… promising research, but it begs the question: What does that mean for the babies who had their CCR5 genes edited via CRISPR prior to their birth? Researchers speculate that the alternation will have effects on the children’s cognitive functioning. …
John Loeffler’s February 22, 2019 article for interestingengineering.com notes that there are still many questions about He’s (scientist’s name) research including, did he (pronoun) do what he claimed? (Note: Links have been removed),
Considering that no one knows for sure whether He has actually done as he and his team claim, the swiftness of the condemnation of his work—unproven as it is—shows the sensitivity around this issue.
Whether He did in fact edit Lulu and Nana’s genes, it appears he didn’t intend to impact their cognitive capacities. According to MIT Technology Review, not a single researcher studying CCR5’s role in intelligence was contacted by He, even as other doctors and scientists were sought out for advice about his project.
This further adds to the alarm as there is every expectation that He should have known about the connection between CCR5 and cognition.
At a gathering of gene-editing researchers in Hong Kong two days after the birth of the potentially genetically-altered twins was announced, He was asked about the potential impact of erasing CCR5 from the twins DNA on their mental capacity.
He responded that he knew about the potential cognitive link shown in Silva’s 2016 research. “I saw that paper, it needs more independent verification,” He said, before adding that “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”
The problem, as Silva sees it, is that He may be blazing the trail for exactly that outcome, whether He intends to or not. Silva says that after his 2016 research was published, he received an uncomfortable amount of attention from some unnamed, elite Silicon Valley leaders who seem to be expressing serious interest in using CRISPR to give their children’s brains a boost through gene editing. [emphasis mine]
As such, Silva can be forgiven for not quite believing He’s claims that he wasn’t intending to alter the human genome for enhancement. …
The idea of designer babies isn’t new. As far back as Plato, the thought of using science to “engineer” a better human has been tossed about, but other than selective breeding, there really hasn’t been a path forward.
In the late 1800s, early 1900s, Eugenics made a real push to accomplish something along these lines, and the results were horrifying, even before Nazism. After eugenics mid-wifed the Holocaust in World War II, the concept of designer children has largely been left as fodder for science fiction since few reputable scientists would openly declare their intention to dabble in something once championed and pioneered by the greatest monsters of the 20th century.
Memories have faded though, and CRISPR significantly changes this decades-old calculus. CRISPR makes it easier than ever to target specific trai