This is the Frankenstein breakthrough that the medical world has long been dreading. A Chinese scientist yesterday declared that he has changed the fundamental genetic code of human babies, using methods that are banned in most of the world.
The potential consequences are as alarming as they are unpredictable. No less an authority than Professor Stephen Hawking feared such experiments would one day create a race of ‘super-humans’, ending mankind as we know it.
Researchers have already discovered that gene editing may cause a host of cancers as a result of interfering in a genetic code so complex we will perhaps never be capable of understanding it fully.
Professor He Jiankui used CRISPR editing to change the fundamental genetic code of human babies (file picture)
The worst news of all? The technique used by the Chinese scientist is so cheap and simple, it could augur a world in which any would-be mad professor can rewrite the very blueprint of life, with no respect for the risks.
Of course the scientist in question, He Jiankui, an associate professor of biology at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, does not describe it like this.
He claims he is responsible for a medical breakthrough that can render newborns immune to infection by the HIV virus. He did it, he said, using a cutting-edge technique called CRISPR (or Crispr-Cas9 to give it its full name) to change the babies’ DNA before they were born.
CRISPR editing was invented six years ago. It uses an enzyme that functions like a pair of scissors, snipping out defective genes, either in embryos or adults, and then inserting ‘healthy’ genetic material into the gaps.
The UK, the United States and other leading nations have all banned the use of CRISPR editing in unborn children because the alterations cannot be reversed and may also be inherited by future generations.
If the genetically altered Chinese babies survive to have children, then Professor He’s mutant gene — with all its unfathomable hazards — would be capable of infecting humankind in perpetuity.
Nevertheless, the professor was able to forge ahead with his efforts — apparently without even telling his university employers. He revealed his work for the first time only on Sunday, at a conference on gene editing in Hong Kong.
He said that he altered the embryos of seven couples undertaking fertility treatment, one of whom has since given birth to twin girls.
The professor sought to disable a gene that creates a vital piece of the human immune system called CCR5, a protein that sits on the outside of our immune system cells. The HIV virus uses the CCR5 gene as a vulnerable conduit through which it can enter these immune cells, allowing it to infect and cripple the body’s defences. By deleting this gene, Professor He claims that he has made the twins invulnerable to HIV.
The UK, the United States and other leading nations have all banned the use of CRISPR editing in unborn children because the alterations cannot be reversed (file picture)
But already, experts have said this promise is demonstrably false. Dr Dusko Ilic, a leading stem-cell scientist at King’s College London, explains that cases have already been reported where people naturally born without the CCR5 gene have, nevertheless caught the virus.
Professor He’s tinkering may, thus, give his twins a dangerously false sense of security; worse, it could condemn them to early death from infections.
It has been known for more than a decade that people born with CCR5 deficiency have compromised immune systems and face perilously raised risks of dying from flu and the West Nile virus.
More chilling still, we also know CRISPR editing is fraught with other unintentionally lethal consequences.
In June, two papers in the journal Nature warned that in patients being treated for other conditions, CRISPR editing can cause cancers of the ovaries, lung, breast, liver and bowel. In August, scientists at the renowned Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire reported that when specific genes in cells from humans and mice were edited, it left a mess of missing and moved DNA parts, the consequences of which may be disastrous.
Professor He’s announcement is the realisation of a dread fear among respectable scientists that CRISPR editing may open the gates to a world of ‘garden-shed Frankensteins’. Professor Charis Thompson, a genetic ethics expert at the London School of Economics, has warned that even rank amateurs could start playing with the technology with ‘relative ease’.
Indeed, Professor He has no evident experience of running human clinical trials, submitted none of his work to the ethical and medical scrutiny that is crucial in this field and has not even published his research in a scientific journal, where it would have been vetted by other experts.
Instead, he says that he practised by genetically chopping genes of mice, monkey and human embryos in his lab, before trying it for real on human babies, and has already set up two genetics companies and applied for patents on his dubious methods.
CRISPR work on human embryos is permitted in China. But Professor He’s university employers say that they have been unaware of his activities.
Meanwhile, around the world, responsible researchers are treading carefully, attempting to discover how gene editing might provide much-needed cures for human disease while trying to avoid disaster.
Already some 2,700 clinical trials using CRISPR therapies are underway or approved around the world, aiming to combat diseases as diverse as cancer, muscular dystrophy and sickle-cell anaemia. A few genuine breakthroughs have been made. Last year, surgeons at Great Ormond Street announced that they had used gene editing to treat an infant with lymphoblastic leukaemia, a form of the disease that is otherwise incurable.
DNA editing is also being used to turn cancer patients’ immune cells into a targeted killer army that, when injected back into the body, are capable of destroying tumours.
All such work is performed on babies and adults, not foetuses. Many mainstream scientists are convinced that meddling with unborn humans is too unsafe ever to try.
What’s more, one of Britain’s most renowned scientists recently warned from beyond the grave that we should abandon this field of science for ever — or risk destroying humankind.
Last month, a posthumously published essay by Professor Hawking predicted that by tinkering with our own DNA, we are on the brink of creating a genetically modified master race capable of wiping us out.
The mayhem would be unleashed, he predicted, by people choosing to edit and improve their and their children’s DNA.
‘Once such superhumans appear, there are going to be significant problems with the unimproved humans who will presumably die out,’ he predicted. ‘Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings who improve themselves at an ever-increasing rate.’
Chinese scientists have already taken the first step by creating dogs with super-muscular bodies, to make them better for police work.
We have only two hopes. The more immediate is that, as British experts are suggesting, Professor He is merely showboating and his work will ultimately come to nothing.
In the long term, humanity needs to agree a complete global moratorium on gene-editing experiments on unborn human babies. This is the only way to provide a proper safeguard against the potentially disastrous consequences.
Whether real or not, Professor He’s claims are a wake-up call, alerting us all to the mortal threat of Frankenstein meddling. If this alarm goes unheeded, the entire future of our species may be in peril.