A “bright line” in ethics has been crossed, and the world is just beginning to recognize its serious implications. Amid international outrage, a Chinese scientist just announced that he genetically modified the genes in the embryos of seven couples. As a result, one couple has just given birth to twins, genetically-modified to make them resistant to AIDS.
There are many good reasons to condemn this research:
- CRISPR is a new gene-editing technology that shows great promise for correcting genetic defects. Most research has been in animal models, and there is a widely-held understanding that it is not yet ready for human trials. As we have discussed previously on this blog, Chinese research has violated these standards before, in modifying the genes of human embryos. But now they have gone still further, by actually implanting these embryos to produce babies. According to CNN News, “[The scientist’s] claims have neither been independently verified nor peer-reviewed. Editing the genes of embryos intended for pregnancy is banned in many counties, including the United States.”
- The embryos had no obvious genetic defects. To modify their genes in this way is just blatant and unwarranted experimentation. Ethicist Julian Savulescu put it this way: “If true, this experiment is monstrous. The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.”
- It is highly problematic to offer gene editing to couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization, for there could be no truly informed consent. By definition, these are childless couples desperate to have a baby. Now the scientist offers to further compromise the possibility of healthy offspring with this ill-considered attempt at “research?” If the couples really understood what was going on, they would never have given their consent. And how many human embryos were tossed down the drain to accomplish this “wonderful” result? We haven’t been told.
- Rather than submitting his work to proper scientific and ethical scrutiny by publishing in a medical journal, scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of twin girls Lulu and Nana via YouTube (see below). His hubris and sensationalism thus ensure that legitimate medical science will never accept his work. It appears to be nothing more than a callous publicity stunt.
- Feeling outraged yet? We must reject and rebuke CRISPR gene editing in human beings for now, until we know much more about the unintended downstream consequences of this experimental technique. Otherwise, what seems to us monstrous now may become an accepted routine.