Once again, Chinese fertility researchers are trying to play God, attempting to modify human embryos to take the controversial first step to creating “super-people,” who are resistant to disease and genetic disorders.
You might remember that a team of Chinese scientists first tried this last year, shocking the scientific world, causing many researchers around the globe to call for a moratorium on the controversial research into the genetic editing of human embryos.
This time, the response has been much more muted, the study was published last week by Yong Fan, a researcher at Guangzhou Medical University, in an obscure reproductive journal, and then later spotted by reporters at Nature.
The purpose of Yong’s research was to alter the DNA of over 200 one-cell embryos to make them resistant to HIV infection, by editing a gene called CCR5. According to the MIT Technology Review, versions of this gene have been known to make people immune to HIV, because it produces a protein which HIV needs to latch on to in order to infect human immune cells. Doctors in Berlin tested this principle by giving a man infected with HIV a bone marrow transplant from a person with the protective CCR5 gene, curing him of the infection.
In their experiments, Yong’s team used a controversial new technology called CRISPR, which allows researchers to insert genetic mutations with greater precision than ever before, though the level of accuracy remains very low.
In their report, the Chinese researchers cautioned that they believed engineering genetically modified humans should be “strictly prohibited,” for the time being. However, once technology improves, they believe this could hold the key to drastically improving human health.
But, the technology isn’t exactly perfect yet. In fact, Fan’s experiments turned out to be a total bust with only a handful of embryos being successfully edited, with completely muddled results.
This is the second published claim of gene editing in embryos. The first happened last year, when a different group of Chinese researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou published a paper indicating that they had managed to use CRISPR technology to alter a gene in a non-viable embryo (embryos that cannot result in live birth) that would have been responsible for beta thalassaemia, a potentially deadly blood disorder common among children in southern China.
The paper caused widespread panic among scientists worldwide, with critics voicing their concern over potential unintended consequences of mutations gone wild in later generations if this kind of work is allowed to continue. Eventually, the backlash even prompted a summit on the subject held in November between researchers from China, the US and the UK. The end result being that research using human embryos could continue, but no modified embryos must ever will allowed to grow up to become full human beings.