Interference with genetic material of embryos: "designer babies will be possible in the future"

              Monday, November 25, 2019

              Exactly one year ago, on November 25, 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced the birth of the first genetically modified baby. The twin sisters Lulu and Nana are to be protected by the Crispr method against infection with HIV viruses. This invasion of human embryos not only shocked the public, but also researchers such as epigenetic genetics biologist Santiago Gisler. As a doctoral student at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam and a scientific writer, he has been working for years with the Genscher Crispr. In conversation with Gisler warns of certain interventions. The possibilities with Crispr are indeed "almost unlimited" – the method applied to human embryos, however, many dangers for subsequent generations. Today, one year ago, genetically modified twins were born for the first time. What was your reaction to that? Santiago Gisler: I know that this kind of news causes a lot of emotions and people and media tend to exaggerate. But I was also very surprised and skeptical at the beginning. Only in 2013 was it discovered that we can make changes to mammalian cells using Crispr gene technology. Only five years later, we make changes to human embryos. Here are some questions: Did the Chinese researchers manage to change only the right gene, CCR5? Was it worth it, knowing that this gene is only one of two entry points to the HI virus? Many parts of this experiment are still unclear and require basic research before being applied to human embryos. They have been working with Crispr for several years. How does this method work? Infobox – CRISPR / Cas-System Scientists discovered a kind of intelligent defense system in bacteria in 2007. Although it serves the same purpose, its functioning differs fundamentally from the human immune system. In order to protect themselves against viruses, bacteria incorporate a part of the viral genetic material into their own DNA. These sections are called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). The information contained in the CRISPR is passed on to Cas proteins, which in turn hunt down the invaders. Originally, Crispr is part of the immune system of specific bacteria. You can use it to scrape the DNA of their biggest enemies, the viruses, like scissors. We have optimized this bacterial defense system for our purposes in order to have certain parts of a DNA cut out and to manipulate their products, for example proteins. This in turn can cause changes, that is, mutations in the DNA that alter the genetic code. In the clinic, we begin to manipulate genes that cause or affect certain diseases, such as certain cancers or blood disorders. In both types of diseases, those affected are taken from cells, processed and injected back into the body to fight the cancer cells. In another approach, researchers will test the direct injection of Crispr scissors into the eyes of people with congenital blindness. So the technology is only being tested against human disease No, Crispr has the potential to change our environment and our lives: faster animal breeding , the manipulation of allergens in food so that they are not recognized by the immune system or improved efficacy of biofuels by the manipulation of algae. Some scientists even try to bring back extinct animals like mammoths. The possibilities – good or bad – are almost unlimited, especially in agriculture and nutrition. One of the reasons why the area of ​​modified foods in the Crispr area has progressed so far is related to legislation. Since no humans are genetically manipulated, the restrictions are lower. Researchers will thus have more freedom to explore the potential of the technology.And how does Crispr know exactly where to cut it? One of the molecules in the Crispr complex is a guide to the scissors and places them in the right place on the DNA. We can design the instructions to recognize the DNA sequence to be cut. This makes Crispr a popular and useful tool: It is inexpensive, easy to design and use. Protecting children from birth before birth, as the Chinese researchers have done, sounds positive. Are there any disadvantages? Looks in the Crispr technology many possibilities, but also some dangers: The biologist Santiago Gisler. (Photo: Santiago Gisler) Of course we want to protect every child from disease. But the main problem is that we change embryos. This means that we are not only changing the genetic composition of the future baby, but also those of future generations. This makes the topic particularly complex and sensitive. And we need to make sure that the changes we make actually protect against a particular disease and do no harm to the child. We have genes that are responsible for multiple functions in our cells, and there are diseases that are controlled by multiple genes. In addition, people without disabilities often underestimate the quality of life of people with disabilities. What is better for these people may therefore be a misconception. To date, the use of Crispr on human embryos is banned in most countries. Will that change? And if so, how to prevent abuse Scientists already have the opportunity to shift their research to other less restrictive countries. I think that will change over time and eventually we will see clinics in Europe performing these procedures. There are several institutions, such as the World Health Organization, that oversee research and discuss how to best regulate the technology. Many instances, including some governments, do a good job of making that decision. With this in mind, and given the current limitations of technology, I believe it will be difficult to misuse it.What to do about the future of growing numbers of genetically modified babies? I can not say how close we are to this scenario but I believe that this will become more and more accepted over time. Even things that we find outrageous today, such as creating babies that look like Kim Kardashian later, may be possible in the future. So-called designer babies with the desired eye, hair or skin color will be possible. A change in our ideals of beauty and our narcissism in general could become a habit. But what is against it is that you have to align the gene to an embryonic stage to make sure that all the necessary cells are changed. With today's technology, this only works with in vitro fertilization, not with old-fashioned conception. And here it gets problematic: The artificial insemination in the glass is not one hundred percent efficient. Adding Crispr changes further complicates the process. That can cost a lot. In view of this, researchers should be sure that the genetic modification made is really appropriate. Changing the future shoe size of an embryo may not be worth the effort. Linn Rietze spoke with Santiago Gisler

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