‘GENE EDITING’ CONTROVERSY DIVIDES MEDICAL INDUSTRY

Health Care

The miracle of birth has always fascinated man. Man has successfully recreated several key aspects related to birth. From in-vitro fertilisation to uterus transplantation, science has succeeded in beating nature.

But recently a Chinese Scientist’s quest to become a pioneer in the field of gene editing has met criticism and scepticism. A scientist named He Jiankui claimed that he had successfully edited the genes of twin girls. The girls, who were born earlier this month were the offspring of parent who had contracted HIV.

Jiankui went to claim that his intervention had prevented the twins from contracting the virus. The scientist reportedly used a technology called as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the genetic make up of the twins.

Thanks to the scientist’s experiment Chinese twins named as ‘Lulu’ and ‘Nana’ now don’t have a gene called as CCR5. The CCR5 gene encodes a protein called as CCR5 protein which is present on the surface of white blood cells and this protein is also the receptor for Chemokines (signalling proteins) helping T cells in identifying specific tissue and organ targets. HIV a virus which causes AIDS uses CCR5 gene to enter and infect the host.

Criticism:

While removal of the gene seems ‘path breaking’ to say the least, the problem is this method is unnecessary while treating HIV in newborn. Anti-Retroviral Therapy a simple technique can also be used to prevent AIDS from infecting the child.

Secondary deletion of a gene can lead to change in genetic make up and this case can impact the immune system of the child. Long term impacts are unknown. Also the scientist in question has been accused of breaking several ethical laws.

Not only is this experiment banned in China, but the scientist himself took the consent of the parents instead of approaching a third party. He also kept this study under closed wraps and reportedly did not inform anyone about what he aimed from his experiments.

Gene editing is allowed by scientific community on degenerated embryos but these embryos are then discarded after studies.

China for now has temporarily halted this program and several scientists have lashed out at the scientist. Scientific Summit in Hong Kong issued a statement saying that gene editing was irresponsible with risks too great to allow.

Others feel that such experiments could lead to ‘designer babies’ with parents or wealthy clients seeking traits or features that they seek. But many are expressing optimism as well, this could probably open doors to curing genetic disorders.

Opinion:

NewsCaravan contacted several doctors in India over this controversy and this is what they had to say.

Dr Sanidhya Sreenivasa, an Oral Surgeon from Bengaluru welcomed Gene Editing, but is against the idea of commercialisation, she says ‘Gene editing is great provided it should be used only in the rarest of the cases and should be well controlled. Because if you commercialize and people start using it rampantly it might go both ways. That would be toying with the nature especially in a subject which we don’t understand completely.’

Others want Gene editing to be monitored, Dr Ieshan Bali adds, ‘I think it is acceptable provided it is regulated by strong systems and processes to make sure it is not mis-utilised. . What can cure HIV today can also cause a havoc tomorrow.’

We also spoke to those from non-medical background, Sowmya Mani, a journalist from Mumbai added, ‘It’s not been done so we can’t weigh its pros and cons. Obviously it seems wrong to alter something you’re born with. But maybe if it can help someone it’s good. But it can and will be used for wrong purposes’

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