In 2018, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, announced that he had created gene-edited twin girls. Using the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR, He attempted to protect the girls from HIV by making changes to their DNA while they were still embryos.
Since its development 10 years ago, CRISPR technology has helped scientists to change the DNA of living things in revolutionary and exciting ways: creating pink tomatoes, mushrooms that don’t go brown and making crops resistant to insect attacks.
Unfortunately, the attempt was unsuccessful.
While the exact repercussions of his experimentation remain unclear, it appears that, at best, he only protected one twin from HIV. At worst, He may not only have failed to protect both twins, but also inadvertently exposed the girls to DNA mutations that could harm their health.
Additionally, He completely disregarded many biomedical ethical guidelines, including keeping his research secret from Chinese authorities and lying to the parents of the twins about the nature of the experiment.
In the months since, He has shared his work with the world and international outrage at his misconduct has only intensified. After the organizers of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing failed to implement a temporary prohibition on gene-edited babies following He’s disclosure, prominent scientists are now calling for a global ban on all human gene editing.
“We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing—that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs, or embryos) to make genetically modified children,” said 18 scientists and bioethicists from seven different countries.
Many are concerned that the absence of an international consensus on gene-editing standards will result in small groups of scientists making decisions that will ultimately impact all of humanity. Still, others worry about the philosophical and theological consequences of gene-editing and see the temporary prohibition as precious time for answering questions about the future of humanity.
The 18 scientists and bioethicists who issued the initial call for a ban do not envision it to be a temporary one. Instead, they ask that every country temporarily halts gene-editing for a period of five years, in order to create an, “international framework for how best to proceed responsibly.” There are currently 30 countries, including the United States, that prohibit the creation of gene-edited babies; many more do not.
“We’re the first species, and this is the first moment, basically, when we’re capable of altering human genetics so that we can take hold and perhaps guide the future of human evolution at some level,” said physician and bioethicist William Hurlbut. “That’s a very significant moment not just in the human story, but in the whole history of life.”
“Allowing reproductive gene-editing would open the door to certain people whose parents were able to afford genetic upgrades being considered superior to everyone else,” said Marcy Darnovsky, who runs the Center for Genetics & Society.
Others disagree, fearing that an outright ban could prevent important research from being undertaken. Or worse, that the ban could force scientists underground—secretly continuing their genetic research without participating in a more open and global conversation about it. This could lead to far more incidences such as He’s.
A conclusion has yet to be reached on the matter.
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