Stuart Newman, cell biology professor and founding member of the Council for Responsible Genetics, says that the experiment where human twins had genes engineered to make them immune from the HIV virus is a ‘crazy’ project because it misunderstands the dangers and complexity of how genes work
GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.
A scientist in China made what should be a momentous announcement on Monday. He claimed to have successfully edited the genes of a pair of twins who were born earlier this month. The Chinese scientist He Jiankui said that he altered the twins’ genes so that they would be resistant to the HIV virus, using a gene editing technique known as CRISPR. Here’s how he justified the project in an interview with The Associated Press.
HE JIANKUI: I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make it the first, but also make it an example how to perform like this, consider morality of the society and consider its impact to the public.
GREG WILPERT: Genetic engineering of human genes is illegal in the United States and in most other countries with the potential technology to do so. However, in China, there’s no law against it, even though many scientists have expressed strong opposition to the practice. Joining me now to discuss the implications of this announcement is Professor Stuart Newman. He’s professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College in Valhalla, and he is a founding member of the Council for Responsible Genetics and editor-in-chief of the journal Biological Theory. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, Biotech Juggernaut. Thanks, Stuart, for joining us today.
STUART NEWMAN: Thank you.
GREG WILPERT: So the scientist who did this, He Jiankui, he said that he succeeded in this engineering project, but he did not provide any proof that it actually worked. How likely do you think it is that it actually did work?
STUART NEWMAN: Well, I think he’s a serious scientist. I won’t comment right now on the morality of what he did, but I think that he knows what he’s doing scientifically. And I’ve met him, and I think that his claim, as far as I can tell, is probably valid.
GREG WILPERT: So in an article that you published last year, you expressed skepticism that the CRISPR technology could actually do some of this kind of genetic engineering that was used in this particular test. Why is it, what is the issue around – we’ll get to the morality later, but I just want to get into the technique for a second. Why are you skeptical about this project of genetic engineering using this kind of technique?
STUART NEWMAN: Well, there’s a difference between modifying a gene, even accurately modifying a gene, and bringing about a phenotypic effect that has a biological effect. So in the article that you probably saw, I said that CRISPR won’t be useful in bringing about the results that people want because the way genes operate in embryos is not the way that they operate in adult organisms. In an adult organism, you can look at a gene and say it more or less does one thing or it does two things. During embryonic development, it interacts with many other genes in a very quickly changing system and the proteins that the gene specifies don’t necessarily do the same thing during development that they do in the adults. So I was skeptical about the ability to bring about desired results. But if it’s claimed that CRISPR can take a piece of DNA and change it in a specific way, yes it can do that.
GREG WILPERT: So as we saw in the clip of He Jiankui, he says that he felt it was important to do this and to do it for basically what he considered to be a good cause or a good reason. What’s your reaction to this argument and what do you see as being the dangers of this type of work?
STUART NEWMAN: I think it’s very unjustified that he did it. First of all, He is just looking at the known function of the gene in adult humans, he’s not looking at the function during embryonic development. There’s a whole set of unknowns in the developmental process and we don’t really have good scientific control over manipulating it, and we may never do because it’s so complicated. So He has taken a gene with a known function in the adult and he’s said it’s bad to have that gene active, so he inactivated it. But really, there’s lot of misconceptions, kind of unthinking, kind of moving ahead in what he did that he should have never done it.
GREG WILPERT: So what is at stake here, basically, and what do you see as being the best way to avoid the worst kinds of consequences of this technology?
STUART NEWMAN: Well I think you know he’s taking something that I guess he would say everybody agrees it would be good to be resistant against, AIDS or other viral diseases. So he’s looking for some kind of agreement in what he did by the particular problem that he addressed. But in fact, what some people consider an impairment other people don’t consider an impairment. In particularly American society, I can’t speak for Chinese society, there’s a kind of a consumerist ethic which says that if somebody wants to pay for something and it’s possible to do, they should be allowed to do it.
And in fact, you said at the top of the segment that there are laws against it in the United States, but there really aren’t. There are not laws in the United States against genetically modifying embryos. So we would have to pass such laws in order to prevent it from happening. And even passing the laws won’t prevent it from happening because there’ll people who do it surreptitiously. So I think that we really have to talk about it a lot. It has to be stigmatized it has to be something that a lot of opprobrium falls on somebody who would attempt such a thing because in many cases it will turn out badly. And then what do you do with one of the unfortunate outcomes that turned out worse rather than better than not and hoped for. This is really a totally poor and motivated project.
GREG WILPERT: Well, what do you think, first of all, are the motivations behind this technology and this project?
STUART NEWMAN: Well, it’s just kind of a simple-minded approach to a medical problem. I mean, it’s like saying that AIDS is bad, this gene is associated with AIDS, get rid of this gene and we won’t have AIDS or something. So really, it won’t affect AIDS and the population, it will affect it in a couple of individuals. And if those individuals that have been genetically modified if it works and I doubt that it will work as intended. But if even if it does work it’ll just give a license to those resistant individuals to act responsibly and not use precautions and get themselves tested if they’re at risk and so on. So it’s really crazy, actually, I would call it crazy to try to do this. And scientifically, it’s based on a poor understanding of science.
GREG WILPERT: I guess the main issue here, perhaps, is that there’s a lot of potential for unintended consequences and that the biology is a lot more complicated than people make it out to be if you look only at the individual genes. Is that more or less it in a nutshell?
STUART NEWMAN: That’s absolutely true, yes. And there’s a kind of a false notion that if you understand an organism’s genes, if you can modify the organism’s genes, you can understand how the organism works and you can get it to work in a new way, in kind of an engineering paradigm. And this is not true at all. Genes are not the only thing that are controlling what goes on in an organism, particularly during early development. There are many forces, there physical forces, environmental forces involved in molding the embryos, not just the genes. And the other thing that’s not recognized in these attempts is that genes don’t always do the same thing in the same context. So the very same gene acting at different stages in the life history of an individual can do very different things, and this is not taken into account at all in these experiments.
GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, we’ll leave it there for now. I was speaking to Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College in Valhalla. Thanks again, Stuart, for having joined us today.
STUART NEWMAN: Thank you.
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