When rogue Chinese scientist He Jiankui genetically edited twin babies last year in an attempt to render them immune to HIV, he may have also altered their brains in a manner that would enhance their cognitive abilities, according to researchers familiar with the procedure.
The associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen scandalized the scientific community when he announced he had used the genetic editing tool CRISPR in hopes of making the girls — named Lulu and Nana — immune to the virus that causes AIDS, earning the reputation of “mad scientist” and “China’s Frankenstein” both at home and abroad.
However, researchers now claim that the CCR5 gene introduced to the girls’ DNA has been linked to enhanced cognition in mice as well as human recovery following a stroke, and could potentially lead to greater performance in school, according to MIT Technology Review.
HIV depends on the CCR5 gene to enter human blood cells, but studies have also shown that removing the gene from mice significantly improves their memory. In humans, when a person is missing at least one copy of the gene, they appear to do better in school, according to a new report in the journal Cell.
It remains unclear whether He Jiankui was aware of the link between CCR5 and cognition, but chances are slim that he was wholly unaware of the potential side effects his dream of HIV-free babies would have.
Don’t break out the champagne glasses to celebrate a human-engineered leap in evolution just yet – it remains too early to tell whether the effect of He’s meddling in the gene pool will have good results or bad.
While some have entertained the idea of a bioengineered, disease-immune and hyper-intelligent race of humans as some outcome of He’s experiments, critics were also quick to point out last year that his reckless toying with genetics could lead to mutations, birth defects, or long-term health consequences for the infants he hacked.
Alcino J. Silva, a neuobiologist at UCLA who uncovered CCR5’s role in memory, told Technology Review:
“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains … The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins.”
The scientist added that the unpredictable outcome of the experiment “is why it should not be done.”
“Could it be conceivable that at one point in the future we could increase the average IQ of the population? I would not be a scientist if I said no,” Silva continued. “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.”
In the meantime, He remains a pariah in the scientific community for his apparent disregard for basic technical and ethical principles in what the Chinese government has decried as fraudulent practices in pursuit of “personal fame and gain.”
He’s poor ethics were further underscored Wednesday, when Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News reported that his study on the ethics of gene editing was withdrawn by the editors of The CRISPR Journal due to He’s failure to report multiple conflicts of interest, including his financial stake in multiple companies and his sources of funding.
Additionally, He failed to disclose that his research was being applied to actual embryos. Chief editor Rodolphe Barrangou, PhD, explained:
“The authors intentionally hid from us the fact that they were conducting clinical research on germline editing, and that babies had been born … We could not let that breach of trust stand.
The fact that their clinical work is contravening their own criteria is just unacceptable … “It is just unacceptable. You can’t have it both ways. It is important for the journal and the editorial board and the community to act when concerning issues arise and unacceptable work is done.”