Tag Archives: Gene Editing

Lab–grown Embryos and Human–monkey Hybrids: Medical Marvels or Ethical Missteps?

By Prof. Sahotra Sarkar (via Global Research)

In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel “Brave New World,” people aren’t born from a mother’s womb. Instead, embryos are grown in artificial wombs until they are brought into the world, a process called ectogenesis. In the novel, technicians in charge of the hatcheries manipulate the nutrients they give the fetuses to make the newborns fit the desires of society. Two recent scientific developments suggest that Huxley’s imagined world of functionally manufactured people is no longer far-fetched.

On March 17, 2021, an Israeli team announced that it had grown mouse embryos for 11 days – about half of the gestation period – in artificial wombs that were essentially bottles. Until this experiment, no one had grown a mammal embryo outside a womb this far into pregnancy. Then, on April 15, 2021, a U.S. and Chinese team announced that it had successfully grown, for the first time, embryos that included both human and monkey cells in plates to a stage where organs began to form.

As both a philosopher and a biologist I cannot help but ask how far researchers should take this work. While creating chimeras – the name for creatures that are a mix of organisms – might seem like the more ethically fraught of these two advances, ethicists think the medical benefits far outweigh the ethical risks. However, ectogenesis could have far-reaching impacts on individuals and society, and the prospect of babies grown in a lab has not been put under nearly the same scrutiny as chimeras.

Mouse embryos were grown in an artificial womb for 11 days, and organs had begun to develop.

Growing in an artificial womb

When in vitro fertilization first emerged in the late 1970s, the press called IVF embryos “test-tube babies,” though they are nothing of the sort. These embryos are implanted into the uterus within a day or two after doctors fertilize an egg in a petri dish.

Before the Israeli experiment, researchers had not been able to grow mouse embryos outside the womb for more than four days – providing the embryos with enough oxygen had been too hard. The team spent seven years creating a system of slowly spinning glass bottles and controlled atmospheric pressure that simulates the placenta and provides oxygen.

This development is a major step toward ectogenesis, and scientists expect that it will be possible to extend mouse development further, possibly to full term outside the womb. This will likely require new techniques, but at this point it is a problem of scale – being able to accommodate a larger fetus. This appears to be a simpler challenge to overcome than figuring out something totally new like supporting organ formation.

The Israeli team plans to deploy its techniques on human embryos. Since mice and humans have similar developmental processes, it is likely that the team will succeed in growing human embryos in artificial wombs.

To do so, though, members of the team need permission from their ethics board.

CRISPR – a technology that can cut and paste genes – already allows scientists to manipulate an embryo’s genes after fertilization. Once fetuses can be grown outside the womb, as in Huxley’s world, researchers will also be able to modify their growing environments to further influence what physical and behavioral qualities these parentless babies exhibit. Science still has a way to go before fetus development and births outside of a uterus become a reality, but researchers are getting closer. The question now is how far humanity should go down this path.

Human-monkey hybrids

Human–monkey hybrids might seem to be a much scarier prospect than babies born from artificial wombs. But in fact, the recent research is more a step toward an important medical development than an ethical minefield.

If scientists can grow human cells in monkeys or other animals, it should be possible to grow human organs too. This would solve the problem of organ shortages around the world for people needing transplants.

But keeping human cells alive in the embryos of other animals for any length of time has proved to be extremely difficult. In the human-monkey chimera experimenta team of researchers implanted 25 human stem cells into embryos of crab-eating macaques – a type of monkey. The researchers then grew these embryos for 20 days in petri dishes.

After 15 days, the human stem cells had disappeared from most of the embryos. But at the end of the 20-day experiment, three embryos still contained human cells that had grown as part of the region of the embryo where they were embedded. For scientists, the challenge now is to figure out how to maintain human cells in chimeric embryos for longer.

Regulating these technologies

Some ethicists have begun to worry that researchers are rushing into a future of chimeras without adequate preparation. Their main concern is the ethical status of chimeras that contain human and nonhuman cells – especially if the human cells integrate into sensitive regions such as a monkey’s brain. What rights would such creatures have?

However, there seems to be an emerging consensus that the potential medical benefits justify a step-by-step extension of this research. Many ethicists are urging public discussion of appropriate regulation to determine how close to viability these embryos should be grown. One proposed solution is to limit growth of these embryos to the first trimester of pregnancy. Given that researchers don’t plan to grow these embryos beyond the stage when they can harvest rudimentary organs, I don’t believe chimeras are ethically problematic compared with the true test–tube babies of Huxley’s world.

Few ethicists have broached the problems posed by the ability to use ectogenesis to engineer human beings to fit societal desires. Researchers have yet to conduct experiments on human ectogenesis, and for now, scientists lack the techniques to bring the embryos to full term. However, without regulation, I believe researchers are likely to try these techniques on human embryos – just as the now-infamous He Jiankui used CRISPR to edit human babies without properly assessing safety and desirability. Technologically, it is a matter of time before mammal embryos can be brought to term outside the body.

While people may be uncomfortable with ectogenesis today, this discomfort could pass into familiarity as happened with IVF. But scientists and regulators would do well to reflect on the wisdom of permitting a process that could allow someone to engineer human beings without parents. As critics have warnedin the context of CRISPR-based genetic enhancement, pressure to change future generations to meet societal desires will be unavoidable and dangerous, regardless of whether that pressure comes from an authoritative state or cultural expectations. In Huxley’s imagination, hatcheries run by the state grew a large numbers of identical individuals as needed. That would be a very different world from today.

Gene Editing and “Genetically Modified Humans”: China’s “Golem Babies”. There Is Another Agenda

“Just a few engineered organisms could irrevocably alter an ecosystem.”

By F. William Engdahl (via Global Research)

The shocking news that a team of scientists working in China have managed to gene-edit the DNA of recently-born human twins to allegedly make them genetically immune to a HIV infection is more than bizarre and irresponsible. It suggests that certain researchers are making dangerous experiments to create ultimately the eugenics master dream—custom-designed humans. I call them Golem babies because when technology begins cutting and splicing the human DNA without certitude that the result will be stable or healthy to the human species it is not healthy.

In medieval and ancient Jewish folklore a Golem is a being that is magically created entirely from inanimate matter such as mud. Golems have no soul. Similarly, the China experiment that claims the “first successful genetically modified humans,” when we go behind the surface stories, is alarming in the extreme. 

HIV Immune?

First of all the public story retailed by Chinese media and by the researcher, Chinese Professor He Jiankui, a Stanford University post-doctoral research graduate, doesn’t ring honest. He, who is professor at Southern University of Science and Technology, claimed at a Human Genome Editing conference in Hong Kong on November 28, and on YouTube, that he had successfully modified two embryos produced from the sperm of an HIV-positive donor and implanted them in a healthy mother, who gave birth to twin girls earlier this month. He used the most common “gene-editing” tool, CRISPR-cas9, to deactivate a gene called CCR5 that acts as a ‘doorway’ to allow the HIV virus to enter a cell. He basically claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited humans, and announced that a second woman was pregnant with another of his gene-edited embryos.

Other scientists have severely criticized He for engaging in the human gene altering experiments. What He claims he did, to alter the DNA of human embryos, known as germ line gene editing, means the changes in those genes could be passed on and inherited by the next generations. Moreover, as several scientists involved in developing CRISPR have warned, He is in fact changing the human gene pool.

“We may not be able to see the impact of this until several generations later,” said Dennis Lo Yuk-ming, chairman of Chinese University’s Department of Chemical Pathology.

The scientist who first suggested developing gene drives in gene editing, Harvard biologist Kevin Esvelt, has publicly warned that development of gene editing, in conjunction with gene drive technologies, have alarming potential to go awry. He notes how often CRISPR messes up and the likelihood of mutations arising, making even benign gene drives aggressive. He stresses,

“Just a few engineered organisms could irrevocably alter an ecosystem.”

Esvelt’s computer gene drive simulations calculated that a resulting edited gene, “can spread to 99 percent of a population in as few as 10 generations, and persist for more than 200 generations.” Esvelt was discussing gene editing of mosquitoes. Now we are moving on to gene editing of human embryos.

Adding to the drama, at the Hong Kong gene editing conference where He proudly announced his results for the first time, Professor He refused to answer questions as to who paid for his work, or why he kept his work secret until after it was done. Chinese officials claim they had no knowledge of He’s project. There has been no independent confirmation of He’s claim, nor has he yet published in any scientific peer-reviewed journal on it. 

Adding to the questions around the case, Dr Michael Deem, a bio-engineering professor at the esteemed Texas Rice University, has been revealed to have worked on the gene-editing project using humans together with He. He Jiankui got his PhD at Rice in 2010 and that year began co-authoring scientific papers with Deem. Deem also reportedly has a financial interest in two gene-editing companies that the enterprising He has set up in China. Dr. Deem, who also receives research money from the US government National Institutes of Health, did not inform Rice University of his involvement in what under current US law is illegal.

Eugenics and Unanswered Questions

He has in the meantime been ordered to stop his human experiments with gene-editing, pending a government investigation. He declared that Chinese law, which is apparently vague on the issue, does not prohibit gene-editing with human subjects.

What is clear is that, as in many areas, China sees itself in a technology race with the West. As part of the 10 development priorities of its ambitious Made in China 2025 strategy, the government lists “Biotechnology” as a priority area. 

Unfortunately, the government does not exclude proven harmful biotech areas such as Genetically Manipulated Organisms or GMOs. In 2017 the state-owned ChemChina took over the Swiss-based Syngenta, the world’s largest agri-chemical producer, and third largest in GMO seed patents. In the area of toxic plant herbicide, glyphosate, designated by an WHO agency a “probable carcinogen,” Chinese companies make up far the world’s largest producers. In 2017, the global glyphosate production capacity was 1,065,000 tons. Of that was 380,000 tons by Monsanto and 685,000 tons of Chinese enterprises.

Now it appears that China is moving to become world leader in gene-editing. In January the US National Science Foundation released its annual report, Science and Engineering Indicators: 2018 report. It noted that while the USA till led in science and technology development, that “the US global share of S&T activities is declining as other nations — especially China — continue to rise.” Gene editing and Artificial Intelligence were two areas of rapid Chinese development they cited.

What is not yet clear is whether certain US Government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health which funds Deem at Rice is quietly funding the He human gene-editing projects, taking advantage of the lax regulatory regime there. Or whether the spooky Pentagon research arm, DARPA, is involved. 

As I noted in a previous article, DARPA’s “Insect Allies” program “aims to disperse infectious genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to edit crop chromosomes directly in fields.” This is known as “horizontal inheritance” as opposed to the dominant vertical method of GMO alteration that make laboratory-generated modifications into target species’ chromosomes to create GMO plant varieties. The genetic alterations to the crops would be carried out by “insect-based dispersion” in free nature.

A group of European scientists strongly criticized the DARPA gene-editing Insect Allies project. They noted that no compelling reasons have been presented by DARPA for the use of insects as an uncontrolled means of dispersing synthetic viruses into the environment. Furthermore, they argue that the Insect Allies Program could be more easily used for biological warfare than for routine agricultural use. 

“It is very much easier to kill or sterilize a plant using gene editing than it is to make it herbicide or insect-resistant,” according to Guy Reeves.

At this point it seems that the Chinese government is taking steps to rein in the rogue professor He and his research. What is not clear however, is whether this is cosmetic in an attempt to diffuse enormous criticism of the He human gene-editing. Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported that according to review of Chinese scientific journal articles, since 2015 at least 86 people have been subject of gene-editing experiments. They reported that in 2015 it began when 36 patients with kidney, lung, liver and throat cancers had cells removed that allowed were then gene-edited ad replanted in the human bodies to supposedly combat their cancer. The newspaper noted that none of the clinical trials have been formally published.

The entire field of gene-editing as with the Genome Project and GMO patented seeds, is a decades-long dream of some very influential actors such as the Rockefeller family and Bill Gates in what is called eugenics. The effort is based on fatally-flawed scientific reductionism that claims that the complexity of life can be reduced to a single gene that in turn can be modified at will. 

In a recent post on the flaws of gene-editing, namely the assertion that thousands of diseases are caused by malfunction of one gene, a hypothesis yet to be proven, researcher Jon Rappoport, who sees gene-editing as “part and parcel of the trans-human agenda,” quotes Gregory Stock, former director of the program in Medicine, Technology, and Society at the UCLA School of Medicine:

Even if half the world’s species were lost [during genetic experiments], enormous diversity would still remain. When those in the distant future look back on this period of history, they will likely see it not as the era when the natural environment was impoverished, but as the age when a plethora of new forms—some biological, some technological, some a combination of the two—burst onto the scene.

Scientists, including some of the original inventors of gene-editing technologies, who call for a world moratorium on gene drives and gene-editing until the science can be conclusively proven safe, perhaps gain the ear of the world after the shocking Chinese human gene-editing reports. Something that Bill Gates and DARPA back can’t be “all good.” In the classic Golem fable, much like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, the rabbi had to resort to trickery to deactivate it, whereupon it crumbled upon its creator and crushed him. Gene-editing of humans has eerie echoes of that Golem myth.

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F. William Engdahl is strategic risk consultant and lecturer, he holds a degree in politics from Princeton University and is a best-selling author on oil and geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” where this article was originally published. He is a frequent contributor to Global Research.