The recent news that a Chinese scientist had succeeded in creating the world’s first genetically edited babies has prompted us to revisit our blog from earlier this year in which we addressed both the promise and potential peril of the genomics revolution.
Researcher He Jiankui has claimed that he genetically altered a gene in the embryos of twin baby girls who were born in November. His professed goal was to make the babies resistant to H.I.V. infection using the gene editing technology called Crispr (technically known as Crispr-Cas9), to intentionally disable a specific gene – CCR₅ – that is used to produce a specific protein H.I.V. requires to enter cells. Dr. He has claimed success, though he has not published his results. Nor has he shared detailed evidence of his alleged accomplishment.
Nonetheless, the world’s scientific establishment, reportedly including China’s, is worried. Here in the US, the NIH’s Francis Collins has called He’s experiment “profoundly disturbing.”
Crispr creates complexity
Crispr technology has only been around since 2012 and mainstream scientists believe that the risks to human subjects when it comes to embryo editing far outweigh the benefits. That’s because, as noted by The Economist, no one truly understands the potential damage Crispr could do to DNA elsewhere in the genome. In Dr. He’s experiment, it could even make the edited gene recipient more vulnerable to other infections, like flu. Further down the road – but maybe not too far, lies the dystopian nightmare of “designer babies” created with superior intelligence or athletic prowess.
Today, the scientific establishment is in strong agreement that gene editing to fix unhealthy cells of sufferers of genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy is not only wholly defensible but perhaps a moral imperative. But it gets both scientifically and ethically more complicated when it comes to editing embryos, because the changes are irreversible across future generations – and the unintended consequences are potentially far-reaching. National and international bodies are scrambling now to strengthen and clarify rules and guidelines for research. China itself has suspended Dr. He’s research.
Nevertheless, as we wrote back in February, the Crispr genie is out of the bottle. FSG scenario consultants are always thinking of plausible alternative scenarios, but it’s unlikely that Crispr and gene editing technologies can be reasonably supervised. From our scenario planning research in the medical field we’ve learned that the technology is relatively cheap and accessible to rogue researchers, like Dr. He, who labor in relatively unregulated venues. And there is already today big money pushing the envelope of genomic research, including no doubt in embryonic gene editing.
The Dr. He case is actually part of a bigger concern, brought to light in a different research setting earlier this year when a group of scientists reportedly resurrected the horsepox virus, a potentially significant stepping stone for recreating the much more lethal smallpox virus. Who knew, indeed? The Atlantic’s Ed Yong’s expresses the growing worry that small groups of researchers “can make virtually unilateral decisions about experiments that have potentially global consequences, and that everyone else only learns about after the fact.”
“He Jiankui’s experiment,” Yong writes, “reveals that vulnerability in the starkest-possible light.”