When Chinese scientist He Jiankui used CRISPR to genetically alter two embryos, he was attempting to modify genes in babies belonging to HIV-positive parents and help make them more resistant to this disease. However, it also appears now that there may be other effects of this modification. In particular, the two babies, named Lulu and Nana, may actually be smarter and more likely to recover from strokes thanks to the genetic modification.
According to MIT Technology Review, the gene named CCR5 was deleted in order to create children who are, potentially, immune to the HIV virus. However, as a result of this manipulation, the children may grow up to be smarter than average.
New research has revealed that the deletion of this gene in mice leads to the likelihood of improved mental cognitive function. It is also showing positive outcomes for the after-effects of strokes, with a quicker recovery rate being identified for those lacking this gene.
“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” says Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Silva is one of the researchers who has identified the link between the CCR5 gene regarding “memory and the brain’s ability to form new connections.”
“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins.”
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Of course, it will be some time yet before the impact of the deletion of this gene will become apparent in the babies and whether the effects noted in mice will also occur in humans.
In addition, it is unclear whether He Jiankui had any idea that the deletion of this gene would have these potential benefits, and whether this was also a part of his intention with the genetic modifications. Although, according to The Asian Age, this was not the intent of Dr. Jiankui.
While creating humans that are smarter and more readily able to recover from the effects of strokes seems like a good idea, there are plenty of moral complications associated with genetic modifications in humans. In addition, with the discovery of the positive health benefits that the deletion of this specific gene has, it could have just as easily have gone the other way, and these two children could, potentially, have been much worse off with the genetic manipulation.
As BGR points out, He Jiankui is reportedly under house arrest while the Chinese government investigates the situation. Currently, according to the Center for Genetics and Society, the genetic modification of humans has been “prohibited by law in more than 40 countries.” In addition to this, there is a binding international treaty of the Council of Europe.