‘CRISPR Babies’ Experiment May Have Unintended Consequences

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More than a year ago, the world was shocked by Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui’s highly controversial attempt to create HIV-immune babies using CRISPR technology. Now, an MIT Technology Review report says he may have created unintended genetic mutations with his experiments. The report also criticizes Jiankui for a number of ethical lapses with his work.

CRISPR technology allows scientists to make precise edits to any DNA by altering its sequence. Jiankui and his colleagues used the technology in an attempt to modify human embryos and make them resistant to HIV, which led to the birth of twins Lulu and Nana. Jiankui’s claim of “success” sparks an outcry around the world.

The newly released reports notes several issues with Jiankui’s research that bring his claims of success into question. According to the report, Jiankui and his colleagues were targeting a gene called CCR5, a mutation of which can create HIV immunity. From the information released, it’s unclear whether he was able to accurately replicate variation needed for immunity. It is likely that the team tried to modify CCR5 close to the mutation and as a result, generated different mutations of which the effects are unknown.

If the editing was not perfectly efficient, not all cells in the embryos were necessarily edited. Jiankui and his team tested cells from the edited embryos, and reported only one off-target modification. However, the testing required sampling the cells, which means they were no longer part of the embryos as they continued developing. The remaining cells in the embryos that had not been tested may have had different off-target modifications.

In addition to these issues, the report also criticizes Jiankui for leaving out the names of doctors involved and possibly tricking them into doing the work. The doctor has never revealed who funded the research and there are suspicions that he used funds designated for other projects to finance his experiments. While he has talked about his research, it has not yet been submitted for peer review.