The human CRISPR revolution will probably be written in Chinese

I am probably biased because of my professional focus, but this may be the biggest story of 2018, Chinese scientists are creating CRISPR babies:

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in order to render the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.

We knew this was coming. Soon. But now we can confirm it. It confirms my assumption that gene editing in the human context is going to mostly focus on preventing disease in the near future. In a world of low fertility, every expectant parent prays (literally or metaphorically) for a healthy child. After the child is born they can think about other things like how tall they are going to be or how smart they are. But health, that is always the number one concern.

From what I know the United States still has the largest number of top-flight researchers in the basic and applied sciences. American scientific culture, for all its faults, is second to none. But for various reasons, I can’t see America trying to keep up with the Chinese when it comes to gene editing of humans. CRISPR technology will probably be applied to other things, such as in applied plant and animal sciences, in this country.

The future is here. We’re just along for the ride….

Addendum: As someone who has read S. M. Stirling’s Draka series, I am getting a really weird feeling right now about the trajectory that I see for the next generation….

Update: A computational biologist at Fudan University doesn’t believe in the results:

7 thoughts on “The human CRISPR revolution will probably be written in Chinese

  1. I think Nietzsche was right in asserting that the death of god would not mean the death of Christian morality. The West has secularized and yet the residues of Christianity remain as strong constraints on what is permissible/impermissible. I had always thought that it was overstated, but reading a dozen or so high impact bioethics papers would lead anyone to think otherwise. Asia is free of this kind of neurosis and can advance without feeling guilty about changing a few base pairs on zygote.

  2. The future will be interesting. I’m not certain how easily the protocols, once established, will be transferred or recreated in other countries, but it probably won’t be too hard to reproduce, as long as there’s a will for it.

    As for the choice of editing, I would have thought that they would go after simple Mendelian disorders first, not trying to reduce small pox [extinct], HIV [very preventable], and cholera [a legitimate concern]. CRISPR has the greatest potential to help those embryos first.* Though this experiment is probably more of a proof of it working and maybe it was easier to find an HIV+ parent than one with DMD [or woman with a mutation], or Tay-Sachs in China. Though, thinking about it more, making a change that’s more easily scorable/wilder could help convince people to be more in favor of it. Hell, maybe make some myostatin-null babies and dominate certain Olympic events in the future.

    *This might be a moot point in the future, as early developmental sequencing of embryos will lead to more of those with monogenic diseases being aborted, rather than edited. It’s probably difficult to edit to an implanted embryo. Artificial wombs will be the next big thing and compliment this work.

    For those more interested in CCR5, here’s a link discussing its mutations in animal models amongst other information:

  3. That assessment looks right to me in the immediate term. Ultimately, I’m hoping that we get the best possible scenario: The Chinese will do the tough exploration stuff with lots of off target mutations and dubious benefits and isn’t really applicable in mass, cheaply. Then once the bugs are ironed out, and it gets to a state more useful for mass health programs, we can steal (or reverse engineer) their patents and IP and quickly re-converge (basically the reverse of the dynamic with China and the West in the late 20th century and early 21st). Any luck, the tech won’t get too useful until China’s demographic advantage starts to run out, and their age ratio gets much more painful than ours.

    It’ll help if we keep an eye on what is happening in China, keep active programs in animals (avoid some ethical issues, and the technology’s the same), try to strengthen the branding on genetic medicine (with messages like “You are not your genes” and adult gene therapies to break the association of gene editing with eugenics and get us thinking of it as normal medicine) and keep the basic scientific culture going.

    That’s best, optimist’s case though. The chances are probably more likely to be a bit gloomy that we will not get this.

  4. @Odoacer, slightly cynically, I think it’s probably chosen because improving immune effectiveness is the least ethically difficult way to change germline, since you’re implementing an alternative to immunisation / drug therapies. Rather than because it’s the most impactful use.

    (Not that this is totally without issues, in terms of becoming a potentially substitute for drug / immunisation that favour some populations and families, or the benefits of gene fixing individuals to more effectively colonise some part of the globe).

    Mendelian disorders I might actually expect right-to-lifers to be more active or embracing about, on the reasoning while people who are less concerned and have less of a embryo is a person formulation might just turn to selective abortion as cheaper and easier alternative.

  5. I used to work alongside an expert in medical ethics and while I liked him I came to regard the current field of ethics as hot air that has nothing of value to offer. Mostly it is obstructive. Debates on human gene modification should avoid the word ‘ethics’ altogether and focus on probable benefits and dangers. I certainly agree that the Chinese are likely to be ahead of us if for no other reason than that they are better focused on costs/benefits/risks than we are and fret less about ‘ethics’.

  6. Surprised I haven’t seen anybody mention Gattaca in relation to this. Granted, they didn’t do gene editing in it, but the results are more or less the same, and if the movie had been made today it probably would have involved CRISPR.

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