What people like to call “the miracle of birth” isn’t a miracle. It’s a natural process that most mammals get right without a lot of effort.
Human beings have the added benefit of medical science, which can intervene in various stages of the process to make it easier and safer for the mother.
But how far is too far?
Roughly a year ago, the world was shocked by an announcement from scientist He Jiankui (below), who claimed to have created the world’s first genetically engineered babies.
According to TIME, he hasn’t been seen publicly since January, and the fate of the babies he claimed to have helped create is unknown.
He talked with [Stanford bioethicist Dr. William] Hurlbut many times before He revealed at a Hong Kong science conference that he had used a tool called CRISPR to alter a gene in embryos to try to help them resist infection with the AIDS virus.
The work, which He discussed in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press, was denounced as medically unnecessary and unethical because of possible harm to other genes and because the DNA changes can pass to future generations.
The last sighting in January mentioned above involved He standing on the balcony of an apartment, with armed guards present in the halls of the building, which led to reports that he was under house arrest.
When the Chinese government released a statement weeks later saying “He acted alone out of a desire for fame and would be punished for any violations of law”, many feared he may never be seen again.
Hurlbut declined to say when last he head heard from He.
Since his work went public, a number of concerned parties have called for regulations or a moratorium on similar work, as more and more scientists delve into the grey area that is human genetic engineering.
Meanwhile, China initiated an investigation into He, with the following findings:
The Chinese investigation seemed to confirm the existence of twin girls whose DNA He said he altered. The report said the twins and people involved in a second pregnancy using a gene-edited embryo would be monitored by government health departments.
Nothing has been revealed about the third baby, which should have been born from that second pregnancy in late summer.
Chinese officials have seized the remaining edited embryos and He’s lab records.
“He caused unintended consequences in these twins,” Musunuru said of the gene editing. “We don’t know if it’s harming the kids.”
He appears to be short on cash and unable to continue his research at this stage, which is probably a good thing. He’s also not the only one under investigation.
Rice University in Houston said it is still investigating the role of Michael Deem, whose name was on a paper He sent to a journal and who spoke with the AP about He’s work. Deem was He’s adviser when He attended Rice years ago.
The AP and others have reported on additional scientists in the U.S. and China who knew or strongly suspected what He was doing.
Scientists have recently uncovered new ways to alter genes that could be safer than CRISPR. It’s also being tested against diseases in adults and children and could be beneficial in these cases.
The primary concern seems to be the possibility that altered genes could be passed on to future generations, which isn’t the case in the legal gene experiments described above.
A moratorium is no longer strong enough, and regulation is needed, CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley recently wrote in a commentary in the journal Science. She noted that the World Health Organization has asked regulators in all countries not to allow such experiments, and that a Russian scientist recently proposed one.
“The temptation to tinker” with the DNA of embryos, eggs or sperm “is not going away,” she wrote.
This is one of those scientific advancements that had the potential to do a lot of good, but could also cause harm on a massive scale.
Ethics first, scientific community.
Let’s finish with a short video explanation of how CRISPR works:
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