Back in November, Chinese researcher He Jiankui reportedly used a powerful new genetic editing tool called CRISPR CAS-9 to produce altered babies resistant to HIV. The birth of these twin baby girls – if the claims are true – was an unprecedented event with disturbing implications in the world of science.
CRISPR is like a genetic scissor that is inserted into a cell where it can splice out faulty portions of genes that cause disease. This technique, while promising, is nowhere near ready for prime time.
Here in the U.S., scientists have been experimenting with CRISPR on adult cells as well as sperm and embryos; last year researchers in Oregon announced in the esteemed journal Nature that they’d managed to splice out portions of disease-causing genes from sperm that were then used to fertilize eggs. Other scientists were dubious of the claims, which did not include implanting the altered embryos in a live womb.
The Dr. Frankenstein-like move by He Jiankui caused an international outcry, as well it should have. And now it turns out, according to a bombshell report by the Associated Press, that the Chinese researcher actually shared the information of what he’d done with several scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts.
Despite the profound ethical and scientific concerns surrounding the practice of gene-editing babies, Mello merely expressed his disapproval in a reply email to He, but did not go public with what he knew. He also stayed on as a scientific advisor for He Jianku’s Direct Genomics company for eight more months until news of the births became public.
I reached out to Mello for comment by email but he did not respond.
Disturbed by this news, as I regard the Nobel Prize with the highest possible esteem and hold prize winners to the highest standards, I reached out to one of my mentors, Arnold Caplan, founding director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Health. Caplan said he feels that Mello had an obligation to the world community of science and scientists to speak out about what he had learned.
“Of course, as a distinguished scientist you should and must act on that knowledge,” Caplan said. “At minimum, report him to his institution – tell his bosses. Or better yet, get a few of your peers together and flag the experiment in a journal or editorial – shine a light on the dark behavior.”
For anyone with knowledge of world history or who lived through the global threats of subjugation and annihilation during WWII, the strivings to create a super race come to mind.
In addition to the ethical implications of gene editing, there are also unexplored impacts on the human body to consider. Altering a gene to be more resistant to HIV can at the same time make it more susceptible to flu. And effects on the targeted gene can also have downstream impacts on other genes, which may then be inherited by future generations.
While there are some scientists who are excited by the potential for rewriting the genetic code to prevent terrible diseases before they occur, most scientists are disturbed by reports that yet another woman is now carrying a genetically altered child in China. More than a hundred scientists in China have formally protested, and still He Jiankui’s experiments continue.
This kind of rogue Chinese research is on the third rail of medical ethics and is unlikely to happen here in the U.S. because of America’s regulatory oversight and ingrained scientific ethics. CRISPR may be used to edit adult genes as a form of treatment, but extending these techniques to implanting altered embryos brings us to the uneasy realm of designer babies.
For anyone with knowledge of world history or who lived through the global threats of subjugation and annihilation during WWII, the strivings to create a super race come to mind. I would caution that such a direction could begin with the process of repairing a gene in an embryo in order to create a single survival advantage.