Chinese scientist’s shocker should spur regulatory rethink.
Last week, a little known Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, opened a Pandora’s box by announcing that he and his collaborators had successfully produced the world’s first genetically modified humans. Jiankui et al had used the gene-editing tool, CRISPR, to modify the CCR5 gene in a pair of IVF embryos. Given the modification in the CCR5 gene makes the twins less vulnerable to HIV, some have hailed it as “genetic vaccination”, though Jiankui had clarified that the intervention was made to “treat” a social disorder—the stigma associated with HIV in China—since the embryos were neither carrying the infection nor were at any larger-than-usual risk of contracting it later. Many in the global scientific community have criticised Jiankui’s experiment, calling it irresponsible. Indeed, the junior minister of science and technology in the Chinese government has called Jiankui’s work “extremely abominable” and a breach of scientific ethics and the country’s policy on human gene-editing for reproduction.
While human gene-editing carries immense promise, a distinction must be made between using it for therapy and for genetic modification. It is a short lane from Jiankui-style gene-editing to quasi-eugenic creation of designer babies. For instance, if darker skin colour in the US has a high correlation with fatality in confrontation with law enforcement, wouldn’t it push parents to ask for gene-editing to lighten their baby’s skin tone? It is not hard to imagine increased clamour, from a section that can afford it, for gene-editing for better IQ, desired physical attributes, etc. This could skew the playing field against those that can’t afford to take this route. At the first international meet on human gene-editing, held in Washington in 2015, a voluntary global moratorium on reproductive application of gene-editing—until “ a broad societal consensus” had been achieved on scenarios where such modification was ethically acceptable—was proposed. No such consensus has been reached, yet, researchers worldwide are locked in an unacknowledged yet quite real race towards a “famous first”, the gateway to celebrity-status and commercial gains through licencing and patents. US researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov shot into limelight last year after creating nearly 100 human embryos for gene-editing—this was treated askosher because it was “basic research” where the altered embryos were neutralised. Thus, the wider scientific community may be as much to blame as Jiankui.
There are far less riskier—and low-cost—ways for humans to avoid HIV infection. Making two lives incapable of giving consent part of such an irresponsible act, therefore, warrants condemnation. But this is also an opportunity for the international community to define regulation and the future vision for human gene-editing for reproductive purposes. Enforcing an international moratorium is nearly impossible; hence, the focus must be on defining when such experiments or line of action is acceptable, with clearly defined goals and a procedure to ascertain if guidelines have been adhered to. Also, it is perhaps time to junk the artificial distinction between “basic research” and “applied research” in gene-editing.