By now you have probably heard something about CRISPR, the simple and relatively inexpensive method of precisely editing the genomes of plants, animals, and humans.
The treatment of disease in fetuses, the liminal category of life between embryos and humans, poses the next frontier.
Through CRISPR and other methods of gene editing, scientists have produced crops to be more nutritious, better able to resist pests, and tolerate droughts; engineered animals ranging from fruit flies to monkeys to make them better suited for scientific study; and experimentally treated the HIV virus, Hepatitis B, and leukemia in human patients.
There are also currently FDA-approved trials to treat blindness, cancer, and sickle cell disease in humans using gene editing, and there is consensus that CRISPR's therapeutic applications will grow significantly in the coming years.
While the treatment of human disease through use of gene editing is not without its medical and ethical concerns, the avoidance of disease in embryos is far more fraught. Nonetheless, Nature reported in November that He Jiankui, a scientist in China, had edited twin embryos to disable a gene called CCR5 in hopes of avoiding transmission of HIV from their HIV-positive father.
Though there are questions about the effectiveness and necessity of this therapy, He reported that sequencing has proven his embryonic gene edits were successful and the twins were "born normal and healthy," although his claims have not been independently verified.
More recently, Denis Rebrikov, a Russian scientist, announced his plans to disable the same gene in embryos to be implanted in HIV-positive women later this year. Futuristic as it may seem, prenatal gene editing is already here.
The treatment of disease in fetuses, the liminal category of life between embryos and humans, poses the next frontier. Numerous conditions—some minor, some resulting in a lifetime of medical treatment, some incompatible with life outside of the womb—can be diagnosed through use of prenatal diagnostic testing. There is promising research suggesting doctors will soon be able to treat or mitigate at least some of them through use of fetal gene editing.
This research could soon present women carrying genetically anomalous fetuses a third option aside from termination or birthing a child who will likely face a challenging and uncertain medical future: Whether to undergo a fetal genetic intervention.
However, genetic intervention will open the door to a host of ethical considerations, particularly with respect to the relationship between pregnant women and prenatal genetic counselors. Current counselors theoretically provide objective information and answer questions rather than advise their pregnant client whether to continue with her pregnancy, despite the risks, or to have an abortion.
In practice, though, prenatal genetic counseling is most often directive, and the nature of the counseling pregnant women receive can depend on numerous factors, including their religious and cultural beliefs, their perceived ability to handle a complicated pregnancy and subsequent birth, and their financial status. Introducing the possibility of a fetal genetic intervention will exacerbate counselor reliance upon these considerations and in some cases lead to counseling that is even more directive.
Some women in the near future will face the choice of whether to abort, keep, or treat a genetically anomalous fetus.
Future counselors will have to figure out under what circumstances it is even appropriate to broach the subject. Should they only discuss therapies that are FDA-approved, or should they mention experimental treatments? What about interventions that are available in Europe or Asia, but banned in the United States? Or even in the best case of scenario of an FDA-approved treatment, should a counselor make reference to it if she knows for a fact that her client cannot possibly afford it?
Beyond the basic question of what information to share, counselors will have to confront the fact that the very notion of fixing or "editing" offspring will be repugnant to many women, and inherent in the suggestion is the stigmatization of individuals with disabilities. Prenatal genetic counselors will be on the forefront of debates surrounding which fetuses should remain as they are and which ones should be altered.
Despite these concerns, some women in the near future will face the choice of whether to abort, keep, or treat a genetically anomalous fetus in utero. Take, for example, a woman who learns during prenatal testing that her fetus has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by intellectual disability, speech impairment, loss of muscle control, epilepsy, and a small head. There is currently no human treatment for Angelman syndrome, which is caused by a loss of function in a single gene, UBE3A.
But scientists at the University of North Carolina have been able to treat Angelman syndrome in fetal mice by reactivating UBE3A through use of a single injection. The therapy has also proven effective in cultured human brain cells. This suggests that a woman might soon have to consider injecting her fetus's brain with a CRISPR concoction custom-designed to target UBE3A, rather than terminate her pregnancy or bring her fetus to term unaltered.
Assuming she receives the adequate information to make an informed choice, she too will face an ethical conundrum. There will be the inherent risks of injecting anything into a developing fetus's brain, including the possibility of infection, brain damage, and miscarriage. But there are also risks specific to gene editing, such as so-called off-target effects, the possibility of impacting genes other than the intended one. Such effects are highly unpredictable and can be difficult to detect. So too is it impossible to predict how altering UBE3A might lead to other genetic and epigenetic changes once the baby is born.
There are no easy answers to the many questions that will arise in this space.
A woman deciding how to act in this scenario must balance these risks against the potential benefits of the therapy, layered on top of her belief system, resources, and personal ethics. The calculus will be different for every woman, and even the same woman might change her mind from one pregnancy to the next based on the severity of the condition diagnosed and other available medical options.
Her genetic counselor, meanwhile, must be sensitive to all of these concerns in helping her make her decision, keeping up to date on the possible new treatments, and carefully choosing which information to disclose in striving to be neutral. There are no easy answers to the many questions that will arise in this space, but better to start thinking about them now, before it is too late.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.