Twin girls from China unwittingly made history last year by becoming the world's first gene-edited babies. But it is the story of the scientist who performed the procedure, He Jiankui, that has grabbed headlines. As a result of his "irresponsible" actions, he has been shunned by colleagues, put under house arrest, and placed under investigation.
He used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to modify the twins' DNA and grant them resistance to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can develop into AIDs. The entire operation took place before the twins, Lulu and Nana, were even born – while they were still technically human embryos. However, disabling the gene CCR5 may have done more than simply immunize them against HIV.
If new research is anything to go by, the removal of said gene may have given the twins a memory boost and revved up their learning potential. A similar process has already been shown to improve recovery in stroke patients and make mice more brainy.
"The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains," Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) who was involved in both of the above studies, told MIT Technology Review.
"The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins."
Of course, he adds, it is virtually impossible to predict exactly how it will affect Lulu and Nana in practice. There is also nothing to prove He actively set out to "improve" the girls' cognitive abilities. Or even solid scientific proof that the same benefits bestowed onto mice will occur in humans by disabling the gene.
But Silva, who has done a lot of research on the CCR5 gene, says there is an unhealthy interest in super-intelligent designer babies among many in the Silicon Valley crew. And it is this knowledge that made him question the real motives behind the procedure.
"I suddenly realized – Oh, holy shit, they are really serious about this bullshit," Silva said, speaking of the moment he first heard about the twins.
Later, in a summit, He confirmed he knew about the possible cognitive effects of removing CCR5 but did go on to say, "I am against using genome editing for enhancement."
While the ethical ramifications are something to be grappled with and the real-life implications of the surgery on Lulu and Nana are still to be determined, Silva believes there is a real possibility that we will one day be able to alter human intelligence via gene-editing processes.
"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," he continued.
"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."
And even if we can, it doesn't mean we should.
[H/T: MIT Technology Review]