He Jiankui's Gene-Edited Babies Might Have Enhanced Brains

He Jiankui
Chinese scientist He Jiankui at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on November 28. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

The Chinese scientist who created the world's first gene-edited babies may have inadvertantly altered their brains with his experiments, causing the twin girls to have enhanced cognitive and memory skills.

Last November, He Jiankui announced the birth of twin girls whom he had genetically edited to become more resistant to HIV. The news was met with global condemnation. He was suspended and then fired from the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in the city of Shenzhen, and is currently under investigation by the Chinese government, which called the experiments "abominable" and warned that the researchers involved would be "dealt with seriously."

The main issues with editing the genes of humans are ethical. There are concerns that opening the door to gene editing could lead to the development of "designer" babies. Tinkering with genetics could also lead to unknown side effects that impact the health of the person involved. Joyce Harper of the Institute for Women's Health at University College London, told Newsweek in January: "Almost everyone agreed that it was too premature to carry out this procedure… Actions such as Dr He's totally undermine scientific and clinical research, as well the harmful consequences it could have to the children born as a result of this highly experimental procedure."

Shortly after the announcement, He said he was proud of the work he had done. The experiment involved deleting the CCR5 gene—this gene is needed for HIV to enter human blood cells, so removing it should make the twins resistant to the disease. However, researchers in the U.S. investigating CCR5 are now learning it plays a major role in the brain.

In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is researching CCR5, said the experiments performed by He may result in the girls having altered cognitive abilities. In laboratory work, Silva has found evidence to suggest CCR5 is involved in memory and the development of neurological connections.

"The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains," he is quoted as saying. "The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins. That is why it should not be done."

Silva and other scientists researching the CCR5 gene told MIT Technology Review that they were not contacted by He or his team to ask about their findings. Previous research on mice suggested that removing the gene could lead to improved memory: "Overall, our results demonstrate that CCR5 plays an important role in neuroplasticity, learning and memory, and indicate that CCR5 has a role in the cognitive deficits caused by HIV," Silva and his team wrote in a 2016 study.

Research published in Cell last week also revealed the role of CCR5 in stroke recovery. Findings showed that people who naturally lack the gene recovered faster in terms of neurological impairments and cognitive function. Researchers also found that knocking out the gene after a stroke resulted in early recovery of motor control.

Explaining how he felt after He's announcement last November, Silva said: "My reaction was visceral repulsion and sadness." Continuing, he said that we just do not know enough about the consequences of gene editing to do it. "Nature has struck a very fine balance," he said.

"Could it be conceivable that at one point in the future we 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. 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."

The timeline of the Chinese investigation into He's activities is unclear. Because his crimes are unprecedented, what charges may be brought against him are also unknown. A report in China's Xinhua news agency in January said He had worked in the "pursuit of personal fame and gain," and that a government report had found he performed experiments that were banned under Chinese law.