A Chinese researcher rocked the world last week when he announced that he had successfully edited the DNA of twin girls born this month.
The Associated Press reported that He Jiankui claims to have edited the genetic makeup of the girls to make them immune from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The news report says that the type of gene editing performed is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes. Jiankui did the work in China, and said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far.
Jiankui announced his work to reporters and organizers for an international conference on gene editing and did not publish his work in a scientific journal where it could be checked by other experts in the field.
If he did in fact accomplish this feat, it is now time for society to decide what comes next.
That’s where the discussion becomes more difficult.
“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the AP. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.
Scientists in the field are divided. Some feel the actions amount to “an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” while others believe protecting infants from HIV is a noble pursuit.
In recent years scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body. The tool, called CRISPR-cas9, makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that’s causing problems.
It’s only recently been tried in adults to treat deadly diseases, and the changes are confined to that person. Editing sperm, eggs or embryos is different — the changes can be inherited. In the U.S., it’s not allowed except for lab research. China outlaws human cloning but not specifically gene editing.
The Chinese researcher said he practiced editing mice, monkey and human embryos in the lab for several years and has applied for patents on his methods. Fathers in the study had HIV, the mothers did not. Jiankui’s appeal was to offer couples affected by HIV a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate.
Phrases like opening Pandora’s box come to mind whenever I read these types of stories. I am excited to have human suffering eased, but I cannot help wondering if the medicine is worse than the disease. If we can somehow perfect this technology, who decides which flaws are corrected? Who decides what is a flaw? Who ensures the genetic arbiters are doing the right thing?
I know the same arguments happened when Dolly, the first cloned animal was created. We had a similar discussion when Louise Joy Brown, the first child conceived by in vitro fertilization was born 40 years ago.
I believe this accomplishment is another step on the slippery slope to a master race and we need to slow down and discuss where we go from here, before we won’t be able to have the discussion. Because we can do a thing doesn’t necessarily mean we should do it.
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