China’s Gene-Edited CRISPR Twins Might Have Enhanced Brains

The twins were born in China last year.

CRISPR china embryos
The Chinese CRISPR twins might have had their brains enhanced when their genes were edited. (Photo by Gregor Fischer/picture alliance via Getty Images)
picture alliance via Getty Image

The twins born in China that reportedly had their genes modified before birth using the CRISPR editing tool could have had their brains enhanced during the process.

In an effort to immunize the children against HIV, the deletion of gene CCR5 by CRISPR also had other effects on the children’s biology, most notably, improved intelligence and brain recovery after strokes.

“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Technology Review. The effects on the girls’ cognition cannot be predicted which is “why it should not be done,” he said.

Last year, He Jiankui led a Chinese team from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen to delete the gene needed for HIV to enter human blood cells- the CCR5 gene. Some of the embryos we later carried to term.

There’s no direct evidence that the team set out to modify that gene for anything other than HIV immunity, but the global community has, for the most part, condoned the experiment.

The WHO will soon meet to create guidelines for such experiments and procedures. The 18-member panel will dictate what scientist can and cannot do when it comes to editing human DNA.

Still, there is a lot to learn about the effects of gene editing. “Cognitive problems are one of the biggest unmet needs in medicine. We need drugs, but it’s another thing to take normal people and muck with the DNA or chemistry to improve them,” Silva explains. “We simply don’t know enough to do it. Nature has struck a very fine balance.”

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