A Chinese researcher claims to have conducted the first successful gene editing experiment that resulted in a live birth. While the birth of gene-edited twin girls is under investigation, the possibility presents an ethical quandary that will take concerted international coordination to address.
It also presents the troubling reality that the tools for gene editing, which could irrevocably affect the human species, are widely available and can be used with little oversight. Why is this even happening in the first place?
He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist, released a promotional video last week announcing his purported accomplishment that he used CRISPR (a technology that uses molecular scissors to cut into strands of DNA and remove specific genes) to successfully edit the DNA sequences of an embryo that later resulted in a twin birth. After harvesting the embryo for in vitro fertilization, He said he used CRISPR to remove any genetic susceptibility to HIV.
He’s emphasis on experimentation in the name of disease eradication generally draws upon public support, both in China and in the U.S., for such research, which puts some distance between the highly criticized prospect of using CRISPR to create “designer babies,” editing genes for physical characteristics and IQ.
But that distance is narrowing.
While this CRISPR experimentation has been done under strict supervision in research labs around the world, scientists have been careful to follow internationally agreed upon guidelines for the ethics of this research. Specifically, none has gone as far as implanting an edited embryo to create a human — capable of reproducing edited genes in the future. In widespread outcry to He’s claim, both scientists and ethicists have said that to tamper with the human gene pool without any sense of the long-term effects of such a birth ranges from reckless to a “monstrous” act.
In response, the hospital that oversees He has launched an investigation. This is necessary, and the public condemnation from his peers and lay citizens is also essential in drawing the boundaries that must be policed in regard to such experimental science.
Additionally, the international community must give legal codification to current standards, allowing for the capability of enforcing what has previously been respected as a red line for the industry.9 comments on this story
Even if He’s claims prove false, this moment should underscore the limitations of such standards and affirm the need for stronger regulation of what could prove dangerous to humankind if experimentation is not closely monitored.
At some point in the future, one could imagine CRISPR technology being responsibly used to eliminate deadly diseases from the human gene pool — that day is not today. But even the noble idea of cutting out disease from society doesn’t give enough consideration to the hornet’s nest of tampering with divinely instituted gene sequences. Governments picking economic winners and losers is bad enough; the potential for scientists to pick winners and losers in humanity is frightening.