New revelations have been reported in the case of the Chinese scientist who first used the CRISPR-Cas9 technique to genetically modify twin babies’ genes before birth.
The birth announcement of twin girls in China last November sparked international condemnation for violating scientific guidelines against the use of gene-edited embryos to start pregnancies. He Jiankui admitted to crossing the red line to test his hypothesis of “rendering these babies HIV-resistant” by using the editing tool CRISPR to delete the CCR5 gene. This gene codes for a receptor in the immune system (lymphocytes), whereas the HIV virus requires this gene to enter human blood cells to infect them to cause AIDS.
However, the CCR5 gene is responsible for additional biological functions. When its’ DNA is modified, the impact and any possible collateral damage are only gradually observed by monitoring the babies’ development. As a result of the scientific manipulation in this life-size experiment, these Chinese twins are genuine human “guinea pigs”.
Since the CCR5 gene is also involved in cognition, it is believed to improve memory recovery after a stroke. According to a publication in the journal Cell on February 21, 2019, people with a genetic mutation called Δ32 CCR5, which prevents this gene expression, could have better academic results. The renowned scientific magazine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) just outside of Boston, in Cambridge, Massachusetts interviewed Thomas Carmichael, who led the new study. He believes the link to educational success is interesting but says it needs further study.
There is no evidence that He Jiankui actually set out to modify the twins’ intelligence, but several scientists are now mentioning this possibility. The Chinese scientist was certainly aware of the link between CCR5 and cognition, which was first shown in studies on mice in 2016.
Currently being investigated by the Chinese police, He Jiankui’s research has been suspended. According to the preliminary results, it appears that the scientist acted alone by forging official documents, which would be catamount to admitting many flaws in the Chinese institutional system.
Although China has announced that it will define new rules for supervising genetic research, many Chinese and foreign researchers suspect that the project may have been government-funded.