A genetic arms race is now underway after the birth of the world’s first genetically modified CRISPR babies, Lulu and Nana, last year.
The experiment shocked both the world and the medical community when Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, announced it a day before the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing on 19 November 2018.
Using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing, He had disabled the CCR5 gene to mimic a naturally occurring gene deletion that appears to confer immunity against HIV. Although their father was HIV-positive, Lulu and Nana were born HIV-resistant.
In February, this year, new research revealed that the twins may have mental ‘superpowers‘, information which Jiankui had not previously communicated. The research revealed that deleting the CCR5 gene significantly improves cognition, learning and memory in mice and men.
“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” University of California at Los Angeles neurobiologist Alcino Silva told MIT Technology Review.
“My reaction [to the birth of CCR5-deactivated Lulu and Nana] was visceral repulsion and sadness. Those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” Silva, who published a paper about the beneficial effects of CCR5 deactivation in post-stroke recovery, continued.
Silva claimed that making genetically-modified babies “should not be done”, because the effect is unpredictable. The neurobiologist also pronounced that his research on CCR5 and cognition attracted people with links to Silicon Valley, hungry to create super-intelligent designer babies. He insisted that the genetic arms race is now underway.
Many other scientists have harshly criticised Jiankui’s work. Stanford bio-ethicist, Hank Greely, condemned the experiment and termed it, “criminally reckless”.
He Jiankui, however, claimed that he was “against using genome editing for enhancement”, but others have argued that there are other medical options to birthing healthy babies apart from gene editing.
Tina Rulli, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Davis, penned an article last month, published by the Center for Genetics and Society. Titled, ‘Using CRISPR to edit eggs, sperm or embryos does not save lives,’ the article argues that the claim for genetic manipulation to make healthy babies is “mistaken and misleading”.
For Rulli, it is ethically wrong to genetically manipulate a healthy human being into creation when adoption and re-implantation genetic diagnosis are available options. In re-implantation genetic diagnosis, the healthiest embryo out of many is chosen for implantation.
Many countries have put in place regulations to prevent scientists from partaking in genetically modifying humans. In Jiankui’s native China, draft regulations were written earlier in the year to restrict the use of gene editing in humans. Under these new regulations, those who manipulate genes in adults or embryos are responsible for any adverse effects.
Gene editing is underdeveloped and not very controllable. In June 2019, a new study reported that Lulu and Nana may face a higher risk of premature death, because of the experiment.
“This is a cautionary tale,” said Rasmus Nielsen, a Professor of Integrative Biology, who led the study at the University of California, Berkeley.
“We know it has many different effects. The question is: Is it overall beneficial or detrimental to have this mutation? That was not known,” Nielsen continued.
Indeed, the ethical apprehensions over genetic manipulation are similar to those of abortion in many cases. Rulli, for example, argues that:
“A clinician first creates an embryo with genetic defects, and then “rescues” it using CRISPR. Calling this a cure or a therapy is a nonstandard use of those concepts, one that warrants a distinction from standard cures that save lives and prevent otherwise probable harms.”
Simplistically, Rulli argues, do not create a baby if it is unwanted in its unmodified genetic state. Yet, despite government regulations and the risk of adverse effects, the lure of designer babies with biological advantages for thriving in an ultra-competitive world is a siren call for those who can afford it.
Historically, creating babies whose appearance upholds societal, political and genetic standards of superiority is a human ideal that reached mass popularity in Nazi Germany, when Aryan women were encouraged to breed to create more Aryan soldiers.
“From the face speaks the soul of the race”, Alfred Vogel wrote in his 1938 text, Inheritance and Racial Hygiene, where he compared photographs of Jewish and German children to prove the racial superiority of Aryan children. Based on the pseudoscience of phrenology, the Nazis upheld the ideal of full genetic whiteness as the racial ideal.
Today, the idea of full racial whiteness as superior is continued among ultra-right-wing Western leaders like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. This idea of racial superiority finds a battleground in abortion, where abortions rights are being repealed in the USA in order to increase the number of ‘pure’ white babies being born in multiracial America – an idea taken from the policy books of Nazi Germany, where abortions were illegal for Aryan women. Indeed, the Congenitally Defective Births law, passed six months after the Nazis came into power, would set up a Big Brother system that would decide, using individuals’ genetic history, who would be allowed to give birth, to prevent the birth of ‘undesirable’, hence inferior, Aryan children.
Like abortion, the future of genetic manipulation will only become a battleground for our deeply-historical and deeply-wounded understanding of race, as each race potentially uses this science to create super-babies to prove its racial superiority.
Since, globally, on average, wealth and resource distribution is still largely dependent upon race, genetic editing would only increase racial wealth inequality. The battle for eugenics will simply continue with genetic editing.