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The birth of a genome edited baby

Genome editing technology has become one of the top 10 futuristic technologies in the global economic forum and has drawn attention in the parts of society beyond academia. China has recently been gaining global attention with the birth of a genetically edited baby. A professor from China University of Science and Technology created the first genetically edited baby in human history, using genetic editing techniques in genetic engineering. However, Chinese scientists and many public figures as well as the world's scientific community are criticizing this action. This is becoming a big problem. In this article we will look at the genome editing technology and find out its problem and the different perspectives about genome editing technology.


What is genome editing technique?

This technology causes mutations and it eliminates the normal functions of genes by selectively removing or replacing only the intended gene. This is an innovative bio-technology that can eventually produce the biological changes as a result of experiments by the use of technology. Genetic editing technology is only a manipulation that edits only existing materials in the organism, without using genetic material from other organisms. To exactly understand the genetic editing technology, we need to compare it with GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). GMOs are  creatures that have new properties that do not exist in the original organisms by inserting genetic material from other organisms into them. The difference between GMO and genome editing technology is that GMO uses genes from other organisms to produce mutations, while gene editing technology produce mutations only with the genes of the organism. GMO is a a bio-technology or a genomic editing technology, but the uncertainty caused by the introduction of external genes is controversial. However, genome editing technology can avoid this controversy, because genome editing technology is a method that disables the functions of existing genes without introducing genes from outside. As the controversy about the harmfulness of GMOs continues to grow, genome editing technology has a powerful force as an alternative to GMOs.

 

One of the most popular editing technologies in the world is gene Scissors technology (CRISPR). CRISPR is a technology used to correct genes in human, animal and plant cells. It is an artificial enzyme that binds to plant and animal genes. It is used to cut specific DNA sites. It solves  problemd by removing the wrong parts of the gene. CRISPR can be easily understood as 'genetic weaving' technology;  when the zipper of DNA breaks down, the scissors (CRISPR) cut out the broken areas, specific genes, and replaces them with new zipper pieces. The sequence of genes is stored as  memory in the genome, all genetic information that an organism has, of the germ. After the sequence of genes is stored in the genome, CRIPR can easily defeat a virus by cutting germ DNA from the genes whenever the germ is re-infected with the same virus.

 

The use of genome editing technology in our lives

 

Let's look at how the gene editing technology is applied in our lives.

 

This technology is widely used in the biological field and can be used for a medically for  diseases of pigs. Onedisease that afflicts pigs is PRRS (Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome virus). This disease is a very serious disease that causes problems such as respiratory failure and premature birth, miscarriage during birth, and so on. On June 21, 2018, according to reports in  'BBC', 'The Guardian' and 'Science Daily,' a research institute successfully developed pigs that do not get PRRS by using gene editing technology. The University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute developed pigs that beat this incurable disease. Dr. Cristina Burkart of the Roslin Institute, who led the study, said "The pig's immunity in the experiment was 99.99999999 percent," and "We were able to confirm that it has reached a perfect immune state." Dr. Burkhardt also said, "The results of this study show that many pigs can be protected from PRRS, and people will be able to eat bacon that does not contain PRRS viruses within five years."

 

Gene editing technology is useful for Avian Influenza (AI) that is a  most dangerous disease for birds. Avian influenza is called the new pandemic of the 21st century, and it is an infectious disease that can spread very quickly by viruses that infectbirds such as chickens, migratory birds, and ducks. Also, it can also infect humans. In order to prevent this dangerous avian influenza virus, many attempts to make genetically edited chickens have been going on, using advanced biotech technology such as genome editing technology. On February 11, 2019, British scientists announced that they are developing genetically edited chickens, which are designed to be completely resistant to avian influenza in order to stop the deadly outbreak of avian influenza. Professor of Bacteriology Windy Barclay in London who co-directed the project says that the genetically edited chickens will be available at the end of 2019. Experts, however, pointed out that simply editing chickens cannot solve the virus because the virus from humans can also be a big problem. Despite many expert comments, professor Barclay continues his research, saying "If we can stop the influenza virus crossing from wild birds to chickens, we will be able to block the anticipated pandemic in the near future."

The technology of gene editing is widely used in medicine and can be used to treat dementia. According to a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in a study about brain cells derived from human stem cells, it was found that the gene protein 'APOE4 (apolipoprotein E 4),’ appears in the brains of people with dementia  and is an  abnormal gene that cause dementia,  and cause problems. The research team published a paper in the online edition of the journal 'New London', which claims that "The research team can edit 'APOE4' and convert it to 'APOE3' (normal genes)." First, the research team confirmed problems of dementia patients by replacing ‘APOE4’ with ‘APOE3’, using gene editing technology. ‘APOE3’ is a gene from stem cells  from somatic cells of a healthy person. After replacing the 'APOE4' gene among stem cells derived from dementia patients with 'APOE3', they have confirmed that the brain cells are capable of removing amyloid. In fact, the process of the brain cells remove amyloid is the problem because it is impossible in the brains of dementia patient.


Genome editing technology can also be used in the treatment of Hemophilia. Hemophilia is the general term of a disease in which bleeding does not stop. Hemophilia is subdivided into groups A, B, & C, depending on what material is missing that is responsible for coagulation of the blood. In case of hemophilia A, mutation occurs in the F8 gene that exist in the X chromosome among the 23 pairs of chromosomes forming the human genome. If the F8 gene has a mutation where an error occurrs in base sequence, plasma coagulation factor can't make protein. If gene editing technology is used, in a disease about which we know the position of the base sequence of the mutated genes like hemophilia, we can resolve the problem by fixing the mutant part of a specific gene. According to a Japanese newspaper report on June 23, 2017, a research groups from the University of Ji-Chi Medical School and Tokyo University edited a abnormal gene in the middle of the cell using gene editing technology. As a result, the blood coagulating component was increased from 10% to 20% and  hemophilia was successfully cured.

 

Controversy of genome editing technology - China's Genome Edited Baby

 

Although gene editing technology is used in a variety of fields, the technology is controversial. Among the many controversies, the most recent issue is China's genome edited baby.


On November 28, 2018, it was revealed that Professor He-Jiankui of the University of Southern Science and Technology in China succeeded in bring a baby to birth in which certain human genes were edited with the use of CRISPR. The goal was to have a healthy baby born without the AIDS virus HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) from the its father. Using CRISPR, the gene was edited to be able to  resist  HIV infection at the embryo stage. As a result, the birth of a healthy twin baby was successful, but the genetic manipulation was successful in only one of the twins. However, 120 Chinese scientists, as well as the world's scientific community, criticized this action as 'crazy' through an open letter. Professor He-Jiankui seemed to have forged the ethical review documents and blood test results necessary for the experiment to avoid the net of the law prohibiting the reproduction from AIDS-positive patients. Also, the university fired him because of unauthorized research. According to a CNN broadcast, Chinese authorities claimed that they would give a severe  punishment to Professor He-Jiankui and related researchers. They would also strictly prohibit this type of experiment. Chinese authorities announced that they would revise relevant laws and improve scientific ethics.

 

Many experts are worried that although CRISPR is a powerful technology, it has not yet been verified in terms of negative effects. To determine a trait, a number of genes are involved, not by a single gene of unique characteristic. So, although we want only to edit the AIDS gene that was a problem in this case, it is likely that it will affect other genes as well. Also hasty application of new scientific discoveries and technology may cause problems in time. Because genetic manipulation does not end up in the present but affects future generations, the use of this technology must be used very carefully because genetic manipulation problem of human embryo can affect the genes of future generations. It may end up as a successful result at the time, but no one knows how it will affect the future.

Professor He-Jiankui who became a controversial professor was fired in the ethical aspects of science and technology, because he conducted experiments of uncertain outcomes with a human life. It became an ethical problem because experiments were conducted on living organisms. Also genetic engineering about human can be a situation in which humans can become 'commercialized' in a way  that using technology can give a choice of human shape and type.

 

Regulation of genetic editing techniques in the world

 

Some countries have open views about Genetic Editing Technology. The first country we will look at is Japan.

Japan is consideringa bill in which crops produced by gene editing technology are excluded from GMO crop targeting regulations. According to the NHK (Japanese press), during the environmental review meeting in Japan on December 19, 2018, the delegates of the environment examination meeting decided on 'regulatory plan for gene editing technology.' The regulation plan states that if foreign genetic material is not present in the crop organism oafter genetic editing techniques are used to cut or subtract some genes, this crops will finally be excluded from the GMO regulation. Even if the crops are excluded from GMO regulation, the government will strictly manage the technology in a way that the researchers must report the method of the crop manipulation to the government , then government will approve them individuallyafter careful examination. The new regulations will be applied equally to both domestic and imported products. And 'individual approval assessments' will be carried out by the Food Safety Commission by the request of ' National Health Labor welfare department. ' The final decision and implementation will be announced at the end of March 2019.

In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in U.S. prescribed that gene editing studies about human reproductive cells and embryosshould be allowed only for the purpose of treating and preventing serious diseases or disorders. The NAS also required a 'hard supervision' system to limit the use of gene editing technology for other purposes. The Pew Research Center in the U.S. conducted a survey of 2,537 U.S. adults on 'gene editing technology with human embryos' over two weeks from April 23 to May 6, 2018. Seventy-two percent of Americans support gene editing for direct health benefits for babies, but simply using the technology to increase intelligence was not seen as appropriate. In addition, they replied that they support development of medical technology that changes the genetic characteristics of the fetus to treat a  serious hereditary disease or condition.

 

Other countries have negative views about Genetic Editing Technology. The first  is London.

In London, Michael Antonio, a genetic engineer and head of the gene expression therapy group, said that the risk of deregulation of gene editing outweighs its benefits. He argues that  gene editing technology  in many areas is not yet controllable and require regulation. zHe argues that these technologies can have a negative impact on crop performance and can have negative consequences for consumers' health. Therefore, in the medical context, there is no doubt that genetic editing is a GMO process and should be clearly regulated.

On July 26, 2018, the Supreme Court of Europe decided that agricultural products produced by genetic editing techniques, commonly called CRISPR, are not exceptional subject from GMO regulations. The decision by the European Court of Justice interpreted and judged regulation of CRISPR agricultural products within the original framework of 'the GMO Guidelines' in Europe, instead of looking at the technical basis of GMO and gene editing. In other words, it was judged that various crop improvement technologies using CRISPR are subject to regulation, according to the precautionary principle with the objectives of 'the GMO Directive.' These objectives are the prevention of adverse effects on human health and the environment. In response to the court's decision that genetically edited agricultural products are in rigorous regulatory and safety screening like GMOs, European biotech research groups and companies opposed the decision. They said that it would ban the development of innovative technologies. However, environmental groups welcomed the idea, saying "There cannot be any risk factors for a safe environment."

 

Gene editing technology of our country

 

Toolgen, a Korean gene research company established in 1999, has been focusing on the development of core tools to utilize genetic information. Toolgen is in the spotlight from around the world for developing ‘TALEN.’ ‘TALEN’ was developed at 2011, which is the second gene scissors they developed.  'CRISPR' was developed at 2012, which is a third gene scissors. In addition, they have 38 patent registrations and they are applying for 120 domestic and international patents. Also research and development is underway in such areas as platforms, treatments, and molecular sarcoma. In the platform field, Toolgen is conducting research to improve gene editing and gene correction technology that is more useful in industrial applications. In the treatment field, research is being conducted to develop treatments for genetic and intractable diseases through gene editing technology combined with gene therapy and cell therapy technology. In the field of molecular sarcoma, Toolgen is developing quicker and safer  genetic editing technology with major seeds and animals.

Animals, plants, and fish are free from the laws of ethics and have fewer technical restrictions, so the scope of research and development, for disease treatment and functional food production by the use of gene editing technology, varies. On April 19, 2018, the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute revealed gene editing  technology for flatfish. Their goal is to delete the muscle growth inhibiting gene of flatfish, because the fish’s  value decreases as muscle mass decreases. An officer from the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute said, "We only have the final verification of the actual transformation, including the genetic form."

The Korea Association of Science Journalists held a 'Science Journalists Contest' with topics about science and technology policies, scientific and medicine issues with reporters, experts, and researchers participating, for the first time in 2019. The topic of the event is "Gene editing technology, it is it the hope of resolving human incurable diseases?” They discuss the current situation, prospects, and support direction for industry development.

Park Ki-ryang a representative of Cdmogen who participated as a panel member  said, "When we look at the global gene therapy market, even small bio-venture companies are leading the development with professional capabilities."  He also said, "We need to activate gene technology in Korea to gain competitiveness in the international market." Yu Seung-shin an executive director of Viromed said, "Bio industry should be nurtured over a long period of time, and regulations should also be far-sighted and planned." Some experts who participated in the discussion argued that ethical restrictions on the development of gene editing technologies in Korea should be resolved, and active investment and research development should be carried out.

But also there are negative views. Bae Jae-beom, a bioethics official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare said, "Genetic medicine is still in its early stages, as if the gene product that has been made in South Korea is only one thing, Invossa, "and "As it is in early days, bio-industry should be developed by considering relaxation of regulation with obligatorily strengthening regulation." Min Tae-won, as the head of The Kukmin Ilbo, said, "I sympathize with the need to revise the Bioethics Law," but "Bio industry should have sufficient social discussion and empathy, as it could have a great impact on society in the future." This means that deregulation is necessary, but regulation is also essential in the areas where it is necessary. The role of the media for the gene medical technology was highlighted. Yu Seung-shin, the executive director of Viromed, said, "Genetic medicine is being reported like a panacea in the press," and "The responsibility of the media will be greater in the future, because a press company should deliver information to the public who are familiar with short-term knowledge."

 


Science is the channel that connects the impossible world to the real world. These days, the controversial gene edited human is also a scientific research channel where impossible things become possible things. It is true that there are many problems and dangerous studies, including ethical ones. However, if we can create a healthier and more capable human, it is likely to be a useful channel. If we study and develop more gene editing technology with an open mind rather than unconditionally prohibiting the development of gene editing technology, it will be an innovative technology for us.

박아리엘  parkariel2@gmail.com

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