Playing god not knowing enough?

Scientist He Jiankui speaks at his company Direct Genomics in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China July 18, 2017. REUTERS

The claim of a Chinese researcher that he has created the world’s first genetically edited babies has set off a storm in scientific circles. He Jiankui, a professor at a Chinese university, has announced that he has used a gene-editing technology called Crispr/CAS9 on the fertilised egg cell of a couple to create babies of an intended type. The husband is HIV positive and the wife HIV negative and it is claimed that the twin girls born to them are not infected with, and are resistant to HIV, because a gene that facilitates HIV infection was disabled in their egg cell. The claim is yet to be verified but is taken seriously because of its implications. He has been charged with violating the rules and ethical standards of research. The university and the Chinese authorities have launched an investigation and he has been suspended. Other scientists have condemned He’s action. He has gone missing now.

The kind of genetic research on humans that He carried out is banned in most countries, including China, because it can lead to uncertain and sometimes dangerous results. He did his research secretively and is thought to have taken unacceptable risks and offered inducements to the couple. The full implications of gene-editing are not yet known. Isolating and editing out a gene may not lead to a desired result because genes do not exist nor act in isolation. When a gene is changed, others may also be changed unintentionally or may be affected. The results may be unexpected. It is claimed that gene-editing technology can be used to eliminate diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s disease but many think the use of the technology will come with unknown costs. Some scientists who developed the technology have called for a moratorium on its use on human embryos. 

Deliberate misuse of the technology is a possibility. It may give ideas and tools to eugenicists and racists to create human beings of the type they want and to eliminate all other kinds. This is not an alarmist scenario. The world has seen such attempts in past genocides and holocausts in which the technology of their time was used. It can sharpen inequality and conflicts. Dictators and military leaders will be attracted to such technologies. There is a minefield of ethical and other issues involved in gene-editing. So, there is the need for a framework of rules and regulations based on an international consensus to guide such research. It may turn out to be difficult to put the genie back into the bottle once it is let out. 

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Playing god not knowing enough?

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