“I see it as one of those moments that happens once every few decades, where someone does something that so dramatically changes the landscape that the world will never be the same again.”
~ William Hurlbut, Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University Medical Center’s Department of Neurobiology (CNN, 12/1/2018)
A recent development in genetic enhancement research has shaken the entire scientific field, along with bioethicists, industry associations, and government regulators. The incident highlights several themes that will guide my future blog entries.
This blog entry will summarize the incident, with further analysis to follow in later posts.
A Chinese researcher named He Jiankui has declared that he created twin baby girls that were subject to his genetic editing. The story was first reported by MIT Technology Review on November 25, 2018, but it has set off a firestorm of news articles in science- and bioethics-minded media and increasingly in the popular news media.
He Jiankui’s actions – still not fully verified – represent the first time a researcher carried gene editing all the way to the birth of human beings expected to live a full life. The girls may eventually give birth to their own children whose genetic makeup will be influenced by the editing of their mothers’ genes. The effects on many generations of descendants are entirely unknown.
The purpose of the gene editing experiment was supposedly to deactivate a specific gene in order to give the new babies resistance to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.
Chinese researchers first edited the genes of human embryos in 2015, but the embryos were destroyed before being born.
The experiment reported in November 2018 is also notable because the researcher used a new technology, developed in 2012, called CRISPR. In editing the DNA of an organism, the person doing the editing wants to accurately identify the portion of DNA that “codes” for the gene, then usually cuts that portion of DNA out of the structure. Accuracy in finding the right section of DNA is extremely important, and CRISPR achieves this much better than previously available methods. CRISPR also cuts the DNA more effectively and accurately.
Most scientists, bioethicists, and professional organizations seem to have declared opposition to the gene editing of the baby twins. This includes the Chinese government, which claims to be cracking down on such research. In an ongoing drama, He Jiankui is reportedly being held under guard in a university apartment.
My further blog posts will examine this development in more detail:
What are the criticisms of the new experiment? Do they adequately address the need for consensus about the value of human nature?
Are Westerners demonizing Chinese genetic research as a distraction from the moral deficits in world bioethics perspectives on gene editing?
Does technology have its own, self-driving force that inevitably increases human capacity, regardless of the consequences? If He Jianqui had not performed this experiment, would someone else have done the same in the near term?
What is CRISPR?
Why all the commotion about CRISPR? Is it warranted?
If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.
~ President Lyndon Johnson