Gene-edited Lulu and Nana are resistant to HIV

A professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China recently announced he has succeeded in creating the world’s first genetically altered babies.  The project was carried out while He Jiankui was on unpaid leave from the university, who claim they were not aware of his research.

Lulu and Nana, who were born to an HIV-positive father and an HIV-negative mother, are purportedly resistant to the HIV virus thanks to their modified genome, which has a disabled CCR5 gene.  The results have not yet been published in a scientific journal, although He claims that his team has verified the success of the surgery via deep sequencing of the girls’ whole genome.  While the medical community is still waiting for concrete proof, most academics are in agreement that the technology for carrying out such an operation is at the stage where his claim could be possible.

CRISPR-Cas9 benefits from machine learning technology to make gene editing possible

CRISPRs were first discovered by a yogurt company and the technology was quickly adopted by the agriculture industry and by the medical community, which recognized the potential for targeting mutated genes that cause diseases such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis or HIV.

CRISPR (short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and Cas9 work together in an organism to target, remember and neutralize invading viruses.  In medical jargon, CRISPR-Cas9 refers to the widely available gene-editing technique that makes it possible to edit the genome by either cutting out and replacing certain strands of DNA, or simply knocking out genes to make them inoperable.

Machine learning has made CRISPR-Cas9 available to the masses

Machine learning has made it much easier to use CRISPR-Cas9 technology, narrowing down hundreds of options to help scientists pinpoint the best spots in the genome for cutting or knocking out genes and avoid off-target activity.  This makes it possible to carry out complex CRISPR-Cas9 operations in a matter of weeks instead of years.

Collecting the right data to feed into the algorithm is still a work in progress, especially when working with cross-species data, and scientists are experimenting with an interesting blend of AI technologies including TensorFlow and SciKit to fine-tune CRISPR’s machine learning process.

Chinese scientists were the first to use the CRISPR technology in humans back in 2015, sparking one of the earlier ethical debates surrounding the controversial issue.  Nowadays, algorithms such as DeskGen’s GuidePicker that use AI to help with gene knockout, deletion and insertion and gene activation are widely available on the Internet.

Gene editing in humans is of dubious ethical standing

While scientists figured out how to edit genes a long time ago, CRISPR has made the process easier and cheaper than ever before.  This has caused a revolution among the medical community.

In his explanatory video, He focuses on the positive aspects of the gene editing experiment, underlining the advantages of creating babies that are immune to chronic diseases and brushing aside the ethical pitfalls of the giant step he has just taken on behalf of mankind.

Gene editing poses significant ethical concerns, including fears that people will abuse the technology to make designer babies, or that off-target gene editing will produce unintended heritable mutations.  Most countries have strict rules about editing genes in human embryos, limiting research to embryos that were never intended to be born.  An open letter has been penned by more than a hundred Chinese scientists decrying He’s research as crazy and unethical and comparing it to opening Pandora’s box.  The Chinese government is launching an investigation into the matter.

 

Do the advantages of creating babies who are immune to diseases outweigh the risks outweigh the ethical risks?  Is the world ready to find out yet?