Chinese gene-edited twins may have 'enhanced cognition and memory'

  • The Chinese twins born from the first ever successful genetic modification of a human embryo may have inadvertently been given 'enhanced cognition and memory' as a result.

    The scientific world has been wrestling with the ethical considerations of genetically engineering humans ever since the first successful tests of direct gene editing in plants and animal models. Gene editing has the potential to eliminate genetic diseases and debilitating illnesses that affect millions globally, but the technology has enormous potential for misuse in creating 'designer babies' with specific desirable traits.

    It may sound like science fiction, but this ethical debate slammed face-first into reality last year as Chinese researcher He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen announced that he had secretly produced a pair of gene-edited baby twins using the CRISPR gene editing technique. The babies were modified to make their cells resistant to the HIV virus, a non-lifesaving change that seriously violated scientific ethical standards.

    Now the news has emerged that the change Dr Jiankui made may have had the side-effect of giving the twins "enhanced cognition and memory" too. The same genetic change made to mice in a lab setting have shown improvements in those areas, though it's not known if a human would experience this effect either or if there will be any other side-effects from the altered genes.

    CRISPR has made a lot of headlines over the past several years for its potential to edit the genome of a live animal and make highly specific changes, but research in animal models is still ongoing to determine its safety and possible side-effects if used on human subjects. Recent papers have suggested that the technique may not as specific as previously thought and can lead to unexpected genetic errors, which could be bad news for the Chinese CRISPR twins and reinforces the ethical considerations of creating genetically modified humans.

    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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