Scientists worldwide are still reeling from the announcement last week that Chinese researcher He Jiankui and his team produced the first genetically edited babies. Within a few days, the Chinese government called a halt to He’s research, and the scientist is now under investigation by various ethical and regulatory bodies in the country. Most experts have decried the experiment as unethical and reckless, and some hope it will serve as a wake-up call to the scientific community, which has no way to enforce ethical guidelines.
He claims to have used the CRISPR gene-editing technique to modify the DNA of embryos from seven couples undergoing fertility treatments. His experiment resulted in one pregnancy that produced twin girls last month, according to He, with a possible second pregnancy underway.
The modification introduced a mutation to disable a white blood cell receptor site, called CCR5, that otherwise allows the HIV virus to invade the cells. In all of the cases, the father suffered an HIV infection, but He said he wanted to protect the babies from contracting HIV infection later in life. Becoming infected from their father’s sperm is unlikely and easily prevented by a simple procedure before insemination.
Editing an embryo’s genes could allow parents who carry disease-causing mutations to produce healthy children, but it could also produce unintended harmful effects, which all future generations could inherit. And the traits affected can vary from person to person and in response to different environmental influences, making the individual consequences impossible to predict. The United States and many other countries ban this type of research, but China’s regulations are unclear.
Some studies show that people who naturally inherit a mutation of CCR5 from both parents suffer more serious symptoms and higher mortality rates if they contract West Nile virus. This led researchers to believe the mutation may make it difficult to fight off other infectious diseases as well, Science Magazine reported.
He justified his research by claiming it was a medical necessity, but many experts believe the risk to these babies outweighs the potential benefit of making them resistant to a disease that they may never contract and that could be prevented in other ways.
But what if the medical benefits outweighed the risks? Deciding whether to edit inheritable genetic code should involve more than a simple analysis of the biological pros and cons, said Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a WORLD News Group board member.
“What we are talking about here is not just a medical treatment,” he said. “It is not just a new medical or bio-medical technology. It is, in essence, a redefinition of what it means to be human.”
Rather than approaching the definition of humanity with caution and reverence for the Creator of human beings, scientists are beginning to blow past the issue at breakneck speed.
William Hurlbut, a bioethicist at Stanford University, where He did postdoctoral research, had talked with He during the past two years about the ethics of gene editing. Despite cautions from Hurlburt, who does not support the experiments, He continued with his work.
“He’s an idealist. He’s an inexperienced, perhaps naive, optimist,” Hurlbut told The Stanford Daily. “I kind of knew I was involved in something of significance. But it’s unfortunate that it had to happen this way. Sad, really, because he seems like a guy with good intentions.”