Published March 8, 2019
Richard M. Gronostajski, PhD, professor of biochemistry, says recent claims of genetically modified humans developed in China are a source of concern for biologists and bioethicists around the world.
Gronostajski, director of the Genetics, Genomics and Bioinformatics graduate program and a researcher at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, said that the clinical trial in China was designed to edit the CCR5 gene to generate humans who would be resistant to the HIV virus.
“The primary concern of scientists and bioethicists is that it is unclear whether the risks involved in such studies outweigh the potential benefit of the results for the patients involved,” Gronostajski says.
“As a basic researcher in genetics and genetic diseases, I personally have strong reservations regarding this work. The major concern is that the technique used is known to sometimes generate mutations in genes other than the one that was targeted, producing unknown new mutations in the patient. In addition, while there are naturally occurring mutations in this gene that confer resistance to HIV, it is unclear whether this edited gene would also confer resistance,” he adds.
Gronostajski cited media reports in the Associated Press and MIT Technology Review that stated that the clinical trial resulted in multiple edited embryos, one of which was edited in both copies of the CCR5 gene and one of which had only one copy of the gene edited.
“No further information was disclosed about the type or degree of gene editing or possible so-called off-site editing effects, in which another, unintended gene might also have been edited,” Gronostajski says.
The reports brought the issue into the public eye.
“This event has had the positive effect of pushing human gene editing into the limelight and forcing both scientists and the public to consider whether or how we should move forward with such work in the future. It is important that we have these discussions now,” Gronostajski adds.
Chinese scientist He Jiankui claims he used human embryos modified with the gene-editing technique CRISPR to create twin girls. Shortly after the announcement, he was reportedly placed under house arrest and has made no further comments. The Chinese government recently announced new guidelines requiring greater oversight of human gene editing clinical trials.