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CRISPR: The Gene-Hacking Experiment Continues

by hridika ahire
CRISPR: The Gene-Hacking Experiment Continues

February 11, 2021

How relieving would it be for thousands of hopeful parents if they could eliminate their hereditary diseases/ impediments from affecting their babies? Well, there is a hack. It is a bit risky and raises moral and ethical questions, but there is a way. And we have three living proofs- by editing their genomes.

He Jiankui, a Chinese Biophysicist, working at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), Shenzhen, China, wanted to help people with HIV- related fertility problems. To do so, he used a technology that modifies the DNA called CRISPR. The subjects were given the offer of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and CRISPR to ensure that the babies would not get HIV.

He started this experiment in secrecy. The University claims that they did not know about his investigation. This, however, came to an end when the Chinese clinical trials registry found out about it and reported it. The MIT Technology Review made this public. Still, experiments with human DNA are pretty standard, unlike the truly sci-fi composition of a platypus’s DNA.

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Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaks at a human genome editing summit.

By the time this happened, the embryos’ DNA had already been edited, and twin baby girls were born. Due to the publication of his work, He had to act fast and act fast he did!

Revealing Genome Editing Tech - CRISPR

While we knew that human DNA can be turned on and off, He’s releasing of a five-video series on his YouTube channel declaring the birth of the genome-edited twins took many by shock. Another baby was born in 2019 with the same gene-editing technique- the babies born were all reported healthy.

When the news of his work broke, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology condemned his actions. He and two of his partners, Zhang Renil and Qin Jinzhou were charged. He was found guilty of forging documents to keep his research secret and for unethical conduct. He was sentenced to three years in prison and a three million yuan fine.

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A picture showing Gene Editing.

Two papers were published in 2012 in the journals Science and PNAS. These papers made it easier for scientists to understand the working of CRISPR-Cas9 as a simple programmable genome-editor.

Components of CRISPR

CRISPR needs only two components according to the papers. Martin Jinek and his colleagues told in their report for the Science Journal that by fusing crRNA and tracrRNA, a single “guide RNA” can be formed. In simple terms, this genome editing tool can snip portions of mutated genes in the DNA and either allow the genome to repair itself or put a healthy gene in its place.

What did he do that was so unethical?

Even though lifesaving, CRISPR is relatively new to the world of Biophysics and scientists are still trying to work out the kinks of this brand-new gene editor.

Safety First and the Measures For It

To not let anyone use this technique on people without having sufficient knowledge about it, the WHO assembled a multi-disciplinary Expert Advisory Committee on Human Genome Editing to “examining the scientific, ethical, social, and legal challenges related to human genome editing (somatic and germ cell both)”. This committee met for the first time in March 2019 to study and recommend an appropriate working mechanism.

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Joe Biden discussing with WHO scientists about safety measures.

Wide-Ranging Uses & Ailments

CRISPR is being used in the food and agriculture industry to yield better crops and their nutritional value. What’s the harm you say? CRISPR might make unnecessary changes to random parts of the genomes. It is also possible that it may not make changes to some of the cells but would repair the others, leaving a patchwork result scientist call ‘mosaicism’.

It is situations like these that caused him all the trouble. He should have studied it better. Scientists fear that the babies born with their genome edited might not have benefited from it and might face other problems.

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Even after all this, a Russian biologist, Denis Rebrikov, Priogov Medical University, Moscow, has expressed plans to use CRISPR to edit human embryos’ genes to prevent congenital deafness. If science can help us make unicorns, taking this research further makes sense for many scientists. 

We are still planning to improve the inherited hearing loss mutation in [the gene] GJB2, so that a baby with hearing ability is born to a deaf couple.

- Denis Rebrikov in an interview with the New Scientist Magazine

Still, other scientists have expressed concerns using this technique and even though this technique is banned in most countries, Rebrikov plans to continue using CRISPR.

Awaiting Official Approval for CRISPR

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Genome editing startup CRISPR.

Rebrikov released a statement in the Nature magazine that he is waiting for official approval from the Russian Ministry of Health and other such authorities. He has assured the authorities that he will be using safer, better methods than He did. “I think I’m sufficiently crazy to do it,” Rebrikov said.

If people didn’t go crazy or curious about something, we would have never discovered all that we have about this world and beyond it. Rebrikov also later said that a deaf couple has already approached him not to let their baby be born deaf. He said that he had begun the IVF experiment to repair the GJB2 gene, which causes deafness by using CRISPR.

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