The brains of two gene-edited babies may have been cognitively enhanced as a result of a controversial treatment by a team of Chinese scientists who sought to make the girls immune to infection by HIV, according to a report.
The team claimed it used the new editing tool called CRISPR to remove gene CCR5 — which HIV requires to enter blood cells — from human embryos, some of which were later used to create pregnancies, according to MIT Technology Review.
So far, twins Lulu and Nana are the only successful births linked to the treatment led by Dr. He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen.
New research shows the procedure not only makes mice smarter but also improves human brain recovery after a stroke — and could be linked to greater academic success.
The experiment has been assailed as irresponsible amid speculation about whether the technology could be used to create super-intelligent humans — perhaps as part of a biotech race between the US and China.
There is no evidence that He, who is under investigation in China, actually set out to modify the twins’ intelligence.
At a summit of gene-editing scientists in Hong Kong, He acknowledged he had known all along about the potential brain effects from research at UCLA research.
“I saw that paper, it needs more independent verification,” He replied when asked about it at the gathering. “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”
Brain researchers studying the effects of CCR5 on cognition told Technology Review that He never reached out to them, but he was certainly aware of the link between CCR5 and cognition.
The link was first shown in 2016 by Miou Zhou, a professor at the Western University of Health Sciences in California, and Alcino Silva, a neurobiologist at UCLA whose lab found that removing the gene from mice significantly improved their memory.
Silva said that when news of the twins’ birth became public on Nov. 25, he immediately wondered if the Chinese team sought to enhance brains.
“I suddenly realized — oh, holy s–t, they are really serious about this bulls–t. My reaction was visceral repulsion and sadness,” he said, adding that “the answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” he told the outlet.
Silva added: “The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins.”
The exact effect on the girls’ cognition is impossible to predict, he said. “That is why it should not be done,” he added.
Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence that CCR5 plays a major role in the brain.
Silva and a team of researchers in the US and Israel say they have new proof that the gene acts as a suppressor of memories and synaptic connections.
People who naturally lack CCR5 recover faster from strokes, according to their new report, which appears in the journal Cell.
And those missing at least one copy of the gene seem to do better in school.
“We are the first to report a function of CCR5 in the human brain, and the first to report a higher level of education,” said UCLA biologist S. Thomas Carmichael, who led the new study.
He called the ties to academic success “tantalizing,” but said it needed further study.
Meanwhile, Silva said it’s possible that at some point in the future, scientists could increase the average IQ of the population.
“I would not be a scientist if I said no. The work in mice demonstrates the answer may be yes,” he said. “But mice are not people. We simply don’t know what the consequences will be in mucking around. We are not ready for it yet.”
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