Sun, Dec 02, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Chinese scientist’s claim of baby gene editing sparks global debate over ethics


Chinese researcher He Jiankui speaks at the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

Photo: AP

A Chinese scientist’s stunning claim that he has pioneered the world’s first genetically modified baby has suddenly made the eternal debate over ethics and emerging scientific capabilities pressing and real.

Should everything that becomes technically possible be carried out? For most ethicists the answer is no, but the tricky part is whether it can be prevented.

“It’s obvious that everything that is technically feasible is not ethically desirable, but to resist that, in a context of deregulated scientific competition, is structurally destined for failure,” French National Consultative Ethics Committee (CCNE) member Cynthia Fleury said.

It is a question as old as science: Are ethics condemned to constantly nip at the heels of advances that burst forth and take a head start?

Certainly the case in China has brought the debate to the fore. The Chinese National Health and Family Planning Commission has ordered a probe into the baby gene editing announced by scientist He Jiankui (賀建奎), in which he claimed to have tinkered with the DNA of twin girls born a few weeks ago to prevent them from contracting HIV.

The Chinese government said it was opposed to the experiment, while the scientific world erupted in an uproar.

The alleged breakthrough has not been verified, and after a backlash, the scientist said his trial has been suspended. He has disappeared from public view.

“Good science is not just about generating knowledge in a vacuum. Context and consequences are vitally important, and the consequences of this irresponsible action might be dire indeed,” University of Edinburgh bioethicist Sarah Chan said.

However, for all the condemnation it is important to note that many objections were not about the principle of human genetic modification as such, but rather about the manner in which the experiment was conducted.

For instance, it was conducted outside of typical institutional structures, by a lone scientist acting in a way seen by many as premature given the technology used.

He said he employed CRISPR, a technique which allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision.

However, the consequences of the technique are not yet fully known — particularly whether genetic slicing and splicing like that carries over from one generation to the next, with unpredictable effects.

The fear is that reckless application of CRISPR might create “monsters.”

Another ethical violation raised is that the aim of He’s experiment was to protect the babies against AIDS and not to try to cure them of a life-threatening disease.

The concern of the scientific community is that by stepping across established ethical red lines, ensuing public suspicion could crush a field of promising research.

While CRISPR might spark unease of a future for humanity straight out of an Aldous Huxley novel, it also bears enormous hopes of being able to treat genetic infirmities.

“Trying to rush the technology forwards, skipping vital scientific and ethical steps, could end up setting us all back,” Francis Crick Institute biologist Kathy Niakan said.

Following the storm sparked by He’s announcement, scientists are calling for an international treaty on gene editing.

However, agreeing on global regulation “isn’t easy because cultures are different — we don’t think of human beings in the same way in China as in the West,” said theologian and physicist Thierry Magnin, rector at the Catholic University of Lyon, France.

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