Researchers Attempt HIV-Proof Embryos

Kevin Chan/Staff Illustrator

Jennica Martin

With each technological advance humans make, a myriad of ethical issues are always unveiled. A research team led by Dr. Yong Fan from Guangzhou Medical University has attempted to make HIV-proof embryos through genetic modification, which has revived the genetic-modification controversy.

Last year, a different group of Chinese researchers attempted to modify a gene linked to a blood disease. They ultimately failed, but their research launched the ongoing debate about genetic modification and served as a basis for HIV research.

Developing HIV resistance in humans through genetic modification became a possibility after the discovery of a gene mutation that prevents the HIV virus from entering the immune cells. This mutation specifically alters the immune-cell gene CCR5, which reshapes the CCR5 protein and inhibits the HIV virus from entering the cell.

Dr. Fan’s research team collected over 200 fertilized human eggs that were donated because of their extra set of chromosomes, which would make the embryos non-viable for in vitro fertility therapy. They used a genome editing method called CRISPR to alter the CCR5 gene in these embryos and succeeded in modifying 4 out of 26 of the embryos. However, many of these embryos had other side mutations.

These results were similar to those of the research done on the blood disease from last year. In an article featured in The Verge, Dr. Peter Donavan discusses that the similarities from both experiments indicate “the reproducibility of science … However, this group of researchers also reproduced another finding described by the first group, namely that this type of gene editing also causes off-target effects.” This suggests that CRISPR is not the best technique in genetic modification, but that is not the only issue that needs to be discussed.

Many countries approve of the experimentation of human embryos, but for some people, it is unethical or unnecessary. In an article from Nature, Tesuya Ishi claims, “Introducing [CCR5] and trying repair, even in non-viable embryos, is just playing with human embryos.”

Fan and his team understand the controversial implications of their research. According to MIT Technology Review, the team believes that it is unethical to create genetically modified babies, but they also believe that it “is necessary to keep developing and improving the technologies for precise genetic modification in humans.” Genetic modification can be the solution to genetic diseases and improve human health in general, but is it worth it?

Somer Corbett, a second-year microbiology major, pointed out a lot of the issues of genetic modification. Currently, there has not been enough research to determine what the long-term effects are. Genetically modifying disease-causing characteristics can leading to modifying other characteristics, like appearances, which is a major ethical issue.

To exemplify these problems, she talked about the 1997 film Gattaca. “People who couldn’t afford genetic modification became more susceptible to diseases, creating a dichotomy in society based on health between the rich and poor,” Corbett commented.

We currently do not have a simple solution for HIV. Unlike other viruses, like influenza, HIV has an incredibly fast evolution rate, making it difficult to create a vaccine. Unless we find a way to create a vaccine for HIV, genetic modification seems like the best solution.

But will genetic modification evolve from a solution for genetic diseases to a means of altering human biology itself? That is a question that remains as our technology and research continues to advance.