- A Chinese scientist shocked the world in November when he reported — through a well-coordinated media campaign that involved an AP exclusive and YouTube videos — that he’d created the world’s first babies genetically edited with CRISPR: a set of twin girls, with a third CRISPR baby on the way.
- Two months later, a Chinese government investigation has found He Jiankui “seriously violated” state laws in pursuit of “personal fame and fortune.”
- According to a January 21 report from the Xinhua state news agency, he avoided supervision, faked an ethical review, and used potentially unsafe and ineffective gene editing methods on the children.
- If a rogue scientist tinkering quietly in a lab can smash through norms, local laws, and meddle with the human genome to feed his own ego or scientific curiosity, the worry is that many more dangerous applications of CRISPR could be in store.
- What if others are experimenting with CRISPR in ways that threaten human life?
- What if they’re using CRISPR to enhance human traits, ushering in a new era of genetic inequality?
The other Angles
- The CRISPR baby data hasn’t been fully released or vetted by other scientists
- The past several years in science have unleashed the CRISPR revolution. CRISPR/Cas9 — or CRISPR, as it’s known — is a tool that allows researchers to attempt to control which genes get expressed in plants, animals, and even humans; to delete undesirable traits and, potentially, add desirable traits; and to do all this more quickly, and with more precision, than ever before
- He is the first scientist known to use CRISPR to edit human embryos resulting in a live birth, defying the unofficial international moratorium on editing human embryos intended for a pregnancy. (Chinese scientists were also the first to edit nonviable human embryos, which cannot lead to a birth.)
The reasoning behind the experiment
- The stated objective of He’s experiment was to disable a gene called CCR5 so the girls might be resistant to potential infection with HIV/AIDS.
- And He’s justified his experiment two ways: First, he made a human case in the talk at the Hong Kong meeting, saying the father of the girls had HIV and wanted to ensure his children would never suffer like he has.
- Second, he made a scientific case: In a YouTube video, he’s said CCR5 is a well-studied genetic mutation, and there’s “real-world medical value” to figuring out how CRISPR can be used to cripple it and prevent HIV/AIDS. In other words, he felt the use of CRISPR technology was medically appropriate.
- A CRISPR co-inventor from the University of California Berkeley, said in a statement that “this work reinforces the urgent need to confine the use of gene editing in human embryos to settings where a clear unmet medical need exists, and where no other medical approach is a viable option, as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences.”
- Nobel laureate David Baltimore said the experiment showed “there has been a failure of self-regulation in the scientific community.”
- And this is the scary truth He’s experiment resurfaced: that the scientific community can’t necessarily protect the public from rogue scientists using CRISPR for potentially dangerous applications, including driving human evolution, enhancing humans by selecting certain traits, or using CRISPR to increase inequality.
- Scientists have recently learned that the approach to gene editing can inadvertently wipe out and rearrange large swaths of DNA in ways that may imperil human health.
That follows recent studies showing that CRISPR-edited cells can inadvertently trigger cancer.