Updated: Apr 24, 2021
Have you ever thought about what would happen if you genetically modified your dog so that the dog would never get fleas? Well, what about a human? What if humans never need glasses? In this article, we will be going over how Dr. He Jiankui’s genetically edited Chinese twins, possibly preventing them from viruses such as HIV, why his finding is important, and why it is controversial.
Dr. Jiankui used CRISPR-Cas9, gene-editing technology, to change the twins’ DNA. CRISPR allows bacteria to remember a virus. If the virus returns to its host, the bacteria produce RNA segments from CRISPR to find the virus's DNA. Next, the bacteria use Cas-9 to cut out the DNA from the virus. Dr. Jiankui used this technology to cut a section of a gene called CCR5 which is part of a mutation that protects people from certain strains of HIV. He then artificially induced a mutation similar to the original gene into the twins. Theoretically, this could prevent them from getting HIV.
This is the first time anybody has ever changed humans genes in a way that could be passed down to future generations. If his experiment succeeds, then it opens endless possibilities for genetic modifications. There might be a time where we can change our DNA making us immune to viruses, infections, or diseases. We may be able to go even further with genetic modifications that can make us smarter, stronger, and maybe even live longer. All of these perks would also be passed down to future generations. Dr. Jiankui’s demonstration of human gene editing has opened the fantasy of stronger, smarter humans to a potentially viable reality.
Although Dr. Jiankui’s experiment might have a major impact on our future, it was seen as off-limits worldwide. There are many laws against human genetic editing in most countries, including China. Scientists also believe that there is insufficient testing and proof that genetic editing on humans is suitable and causes no long-term harm. Knowing that it was illegal and unsupported, Dr. Jiankui carried out his tests in secret. When he was finally ready to reveal his results, it created a major backlash, and his experiment was deemed “unethical” and “unacceptable”.
The threshold for changing our DNA has been crossed, a step that some people see as “playing god”. Having this power is a massive responsibility and could also result in countless unforeseen consequences. Therefore, it is imperative that human gene-editing technology is fully vetted for its merits and shortfalls. This is a discussion that needs fully debated to determine if it should be a reality.