CCR5 is a protein that the HIV virus uses to gain entry into human cells; by deactivating it, the team could theoretically reduce the risk of infection. Indeed, the fathers in all eight couples were HIV-positive.
Even the Southern University of Science and Technology, where He is a professor, denounced it. It issued a statement that called the work a “serious violation of academic ethics and standards.
Paula Cannon of the University of Southern California. She and others have worked on gene editing, and particularly on trials that knock out CCR5 as a way to treat HIV. But those were attempts to treat people who were definitively sick and had run out of other options. That wasn’t the case with Nana and Lulu
“The idea that being born HIV-susceptible, which is what the vast majority of humans are, is somehow a disease state that requires the extraordinary intervention of gene editing blows my mind,”
He’s work is “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” says Greely. “It provokes not just the regular bio-Luddites, but also reasonable people who just wanted to talk it out.”
There are already ways of preventing fathers from passing HIV to their children. There are antiviral drugs that prevent infections. There’s safe-sex education. “This is not a plague for which we have no tools,” says Cannon.
CCR5 deficiencies make individuals more susceptible to other infections such as West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis, and more likely to die when they catch influenza—a disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.
It is also unclear if the participants in He’s trial were fully aware of what they were signing up for. The team’s informed-consent document describes their work as an “aids vaccine development project,” and while it describes crispr gene editing, it does so in heavily technical language. It doesn’t mention any of the risks of disabling CCR5, and while it does note the possibility of off-target effects, it also says that the “project team is not responsible for the risk.”
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