In 2018, He Jiankui uploaded a series of videos to a YouTube channel titled “The He Lab” that detailed one of the first instances of a successful human birth after genome editing had been performed on an embryo using CRISPR-cas9. CRISPR-cas9 is a genome editing tool derived from bacteria that can be used to cut out and replace specific sequences of DNA. He genetically modified embryos at his lab in Shenzhen, China, to make them immune to contracting HIV through indirect perinatal transmission from their father, who was infected with the virus. HIV is a virus that attacks the immune cells of its host and weakens their ability to fight off diseases. At the time of He’s experiment, various treatments already existed at that could prevent the fetuses from contracting HIV without the need for gene surgery. Nonetheless, He’s experiment led to one of the first successful births of fetuses resulting from genetically modified embryos. He kept his experiment secret until he uploaded the videos announcing the birth of the fetuses, born as two twin girls. The experiment discussed in the videos was successful, but many scientists criticized the experiment due to ethical concerns with the way He conducted it.
In 2012, Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier from the University of California, Berkeley, in Berkeley, California, and Umeå University in Umeå, Sweden, along with their colleagues discovered how bacteria use the CRISPR/cas 9 system to protect themselves from viruses. The researchers also proposed the idea of using the CRISPR/cas 9 system as a genome editing tool. In bacteria and archaea, researchers had found that CRISPR, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, and CRISPR associated proteins, or cas, helped organisms recognize and silence the genetic material of viruses that have infected the cell before. In their experiment, Doudna, Charpentier, and their colleagues found how the specific molecules in bacteria can recognize and cut specific DNA sequences of invading viruses. Doudna, Charpentier, and their colleagues’ discovery of the CRISPR/cas 9 mechanism and proposal of using CRISPR/cas 9 for genetic editing led to the successful engineering of CRISPR/cas 9 as a novel method of editing genomes.
In 2013, George Church and his colleagues at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts published RNA-Guided Human Genome Engineering via Cas 9, in which they detailed their use of RNA-guided Cas 9 to genetically modify genes in human cells. Researchers use RNA-guided Cas 9 technology to modify the genetic information of organisms, DNA, by targeting specific sequences of DNA and subsequently replacing those targeted sequences with different DNA sequences. Church and his team used RNA-guided Cas 9 technology to edit the genetic information in human cells. Church and his colleagues also created a database that identified 190,000 unique guide RNAs for targeting almost half of the human genome that codes for proteins. In RNA-Guided Human Genome Engineering via Cas 9, the authors demonstrated that RNA-guided Cas 9 was a robust and simple tool for genetic engineering, which has enabled scientists to more easily manipulate genomes for the study of biological processes and genetic diseases.
In 2015, Junjiu Huang and his colleagues reported their attempt to enable CRISPR/cas 9-mediated gene editing in nonviable human zygotes for the first time at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China. Their article, CRISPR /Cas9-mediated Gene Editing in Human Tripronuclear Zygotes, was published in Protein and Cell. Nonviable zygotes are sperm-fertilized eggs that cannot develop into a fetus. Researchers previously developed the CRISPR/cas 9 gene editing tool, which is a system that originated from bacteria as a defense mechanism against viruses. In their article, Huang and his team demonstrate that CRISPR/cas-9 gene editing can be used to correct a mutation in zygotes, or sperm-fertilized egg cells. However, they report that using CRISPR/cas 9 to edit those nonviable human zygotes led to off-target changes and, therefore, to unintended mutations in the human genome. Before Huang and his colleagues' experiment, CRISPR/cas 9 had never been used on human zygotes. In their article, Huang and his colleagues demonstrated the need to improve CRISPR/cas 9 gene editing accuracy before using it for gene therapy to treat and correct genetic diseases in humans.