Gene-edited Chinese babies may have enhanced brains, scientists say

Chinese scientist He Jiankui was found to have “seriously violated” Chinese laws in the pursuit of his work.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Controversial Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who shocked the world with claims he helped create the first gene-edited babies, may have unintentionally enhanced the brains of the children whose genes he altered, according to scientists.

He, who was found to have "seriously violated" Chinese laws in the pursuit of his work, likely changed the cognitive functions of twin girls when he used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to disable the CCR5 gene that allows HIV to infect human cells, the MIT Technology Review reported.

Neurobiologist Alcino J. Silva, from the University of California, Los Angeles, who co-authored a 2016 study that found CCR5 was linked to deficits in learning and memory, said the gene editing likely affected the babies' brains, though the exact effect was impossible to predict.

"The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins," Silva was quoted as saying.

The experiment sparked a global backlash after He publicised the births of the gene-edited twins, nicknamed "Lulu" and "Nana". Chinese authorities have since said He and his team would be punished according to the relevant laws and regulations for performing human embryo gene editing for the purpose of reproduction, which is banned in the country, state-run Xinhua said earlier this month.

Last November, He said at an international human genome-editing summit in Hong Kong that he had read the research conducted by Silva and others, which found the removal of the CCR5 gene in mice significantly improved their memory.

"I saw the paper, and I believe it needs more independent verification," he said in response to a question about whether he had inadvertently improved the brains of the gene-edited babies. "I [am] against using genome editing for the enhancement."

New research on the CCR5 gene published last Thursday in the journal Cell, co-authored by Silva, found links to the gene and school performance, suggesting links to human intelligence.

"Could it be conceivable that at one point in the future we could increase the average IQ of the population?" Silva told the MIT Technology Review. "I would not be a scientist if I said no. The work in mice demonstrates the answer may be yes. But mice are not people. We simply don't know what the consequences will be in mucking around. We are not ready for it yet."

Separately, a New York-based journal that publishes research and analysis on genome editing announced last week it would retract an article written by He and his colleagues on "draft guidelines" to ethically carry out human gene editing, including performing the process to prevent serious diseases rather than for vanity reasons.

The piece in The CRISPR Journal, published on November 28, was withdrawn for the authors' failure to disclose the gene-editing experiment, according to its editor-in-chief Rodolphe Barrangou.

"The authors' failure to disclose this clinical work manifestly impacted editorial consideration of the manuscript," a note on the journal's website said, describing He's experiment as "most likely in violation of accepted bioethical international norms and local regulations".

"Based on our considered review of the circumstances surrounding this submission and the lack of full and open disclosure, we have decided to officially retract the paper from the literature."

Stanford University also announced in early February it was reviewing the interactions its scientists had with He, with some professors having said they knew or suspected He wanted to gene-edit embryos for pregnancy.

Disgraced scientist He, who has been dubbed "China's Dr Frankenstein", was fired from his role at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen in the wake of his controversial research. He was reportedly held under house arrest at the university while he was investigated.

Authorities said He had organised a team to "intentionally avoid surveillance and use technology with uncertain safety and effectiveness" to pursue his experiment, and accused him of doing so "in pursuit of personal fame and fortune".

Scientists in China and around the world criticised his experiments saying they had major ethical concerns, including putting the gene-edited babies at risk and that there was potential for the technology to be abused.

He reportedly forged ethical review papers in the process of his experiment, which involved recruiting eight couples, resulting in two pregnancies. A third gene-edited foetus is being carried by another woman. "Lulu" and "Nana" are being kept under medical observation by the Guangdong government.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post