Gene editing raises some very real questions

If you had the chance to change the genes of your unborn children, would you? Would you want to alter their eye colour? Make them taller, or smarter? What if you could make them resistant to certain diseases?

It might sound like science fiction, but after last week’s announcement that the first gene-edited babies have been born in China, these are very real questions that the scientific community is grappling with.

Gene editing is the process of altering the DNA of an organism – adding, removing, or changing DNA sequences at specific locations in the genome. The potential for gene editing has exploded with the development of the CRISPR-Cas9 (more simply known as CRISPR) gene editing system. CRISPR allows scientists to target specific regions of DNA for cutting, and then uses the cells own repair system to fix these cuts, and in the process modifying the DNA.

The big hope for CRISPR is that it can be used to cure disease. Cystic fibrosis, haemophilia, sickle-cell anaemia, Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy: there is a long list of genetic disorders which could potentially be cured by editing the genes involved.

Although there is so much potential, the technology is not yet perfect, and there’s still a lot that we don’t know about gene editing and the long-term consequences.

Which is why the announcement that the first gene edited babies have been born has caused shockwaves around the world.

Chinese researcher Dr He claims that he has edited the genomes of twin girls born in November this year.

He says that he has used CRIPSR to change a single gene in each of the girls.

The gene is called CCR5, and it builds a protein that, among other things, allows HIV to infect white blood cells. The girls’ father is HIV positive, and the procedure was designed to ensure his daughters would not be infected.

The experiment has been widely condemned as unethical by scientists around the world. There are concerns about the long-term health consequences for the girls, but also concern that this study might set a precedent for other scientists to start tinkering with the human genome.

Right now, we don’t know how true Dr He’s claims are.

The study has not yet been published in scientific journals, nor independently verified by other scientists.

Regardless, it has certainly opened up a can of worms that isn’t about to be closed any time soon.

​​Dr Mary McMillan is a lecturer at the University of New England’s School of Science & Technology.