Granted, this story is more medical tech than politics, but it definitely shares some of the same real estate when it comes to social narratives and ethical dilemmas. In the past week, it was announced that a scientist in China had successfully edited the genetic structure of human twins using CRISPR technology. The scientist, He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of Shenzhen, made the remarkable claims ahead of a conference on human gene-editing without releasing a paper for peer review. Still, the claim is being taken seriously and other researchers are crying foul. (Boston Globe)
A Chinese scientist’s claim that he used a powerful new gene-editing technique to change the embryonic DNA of twins drew fire Monday from ethicists and doctors in Massachusetts and from a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped invent the tool.
The scientist’s work was carried out in secrecy, and the results were not published in a peer-reviewed journal, prompting some to question the claim. But if it’s true, several ethicists and physicians said, the experiment could threaten the babies’ health and represent an alarming step toward a new world of so-called designer babies…
He, the scientist, said his team performed “gene surgery” on embryos created from their parents’ eggs and sperm to protect the girls, Lulu and Nana, from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The children’s father is HIV-positive.
Why is everyone so upset, including the inventor of the CRISPR technology? Because there’s (supposedly) been an international agreement not to do such experiments on human embryos. This guy claims that he was able to “edit” the children so they won’t be susceptible to HIV transmission, which sounds great, but we’re still in the infancy of genetic research. Making one change for the desired effect can apparently result in other, unanticipated changes down the line.
Also, He Jiankui was editing the babies’ reproductive cells, meaning that any traits – or errors – would be passed down to the next generation. Currently, scientists were supposed to be restricted to editing somatic cells (the ones not involved in reproduction). So all sorts of ethical questions have been raised.
But wasn’t this just going to happen sooner or later anyway? In fact, the odds are that others broke this ground before this guy. They just didn’t announce it to the world. Designer babies are desirable by definition and if there’s enough demand, the scientific marketplace will find a way to meet it. The same goes for cloning human beings. That’s supposed to be internationally outlawed. And yet the odds are that humans have already been cloned. Granted, cloning from an adult cell may still be unlikely, but they could create a “twin” for a baby I’m sure. And if it’s possible, there’s probably a lab somewhere in Asia or Russia where it’s already being done.
Genetic research is simply too tempting for scientists to avoid. If they can offer people a way to ensure their children won’t fall victim to horrible diseases, you’re not going to get very far in arguing against that. But the underlying danger here is that once you’ve cracked open the door to messing around with the human DNA chain, there are so many other goodies waiting to be explored on the other side. And nearly all of them are fraught with ethical questions and potential catastrophes.
So should we be worried about the ethical concerns and the “possibility” of edited embryos and cloned humans? Chances are that it’s already happening.