Chinese scientist could face prosecution for genetically edited babies
If you could edit any of your genetic traits, would you? Or better yet, should you?
This question is being asked all around the world as Chinese scientist He Jiankui is under investigation for genetically editing babies.
In November of last year, the Associated Press (AP) reported that He had claimed to have successfully altered the genetic makeup of twin embryos. While the report remains unconfirmed by AP, Chinese reports have recently suggested a confirmation of these events.
If confirmed, He’s experiment would be the first success of its kind. Lee Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Lori West explained the theory behind gene editing.
“They go in and target a specific location, and there is an enzyme that can go in and cut, then the cell repairs,” West said. “This is a very simplified version.”
West explained that one of the main reasons for editing the genes of embryos is for the prevention of certain diseases and disabilities. He’s goal was to disable a gene called CCR5 in an attempt to prevent HIV—a virus that leads to AIDS.
West said that He’s claims have spawned concerns within the scientific community.
“There was an international summit—a big group of scientists—that met to discuss this, the ethics of it, and to discuss the social implications of this,” West added. “The reason they are concerned is because the technology is not perfect yet.”
According to AP, his experiments were halted upon discovery, and investigations commenced, as China outlaws experimentation on embryos that “violates ethical or moral principles.”
Junior biological and health sciences major Alissa Jackson expressed concern over whether or not the parents of the twins with edited genes knew the exact risks of what was being performed.
“Did He exaggerate what he was doing as a benefit to their children? Did he minimize the risks that are known to come with gene editing? What about the twin girls? A decision has been made to change their genetic makeup, and they never had a choice in the matter,” Jackson said.
Visiting Lecturer in Christian Ethics Kevin Snider explained that the ability to edit genes could be a positive advancement in science but warned about the negative ethical implications if used to meddle with things outside of disease prevention.
“There are two things to distinguish in gene editing—one of which is therapy, which means dealing with some illness or disease, or editing for enhancement, which means ‘I want a kid with brown eyes instead of blue,’” Snider said. “I have a tentative sort of expectancy that this could be potentially good for humans. … For therapeutic reasons, this could be good.”
However, Snider also expressed concern that preventing genetic discrepancies could be potentially damaging to society.
“I have worries that some people think that some versions of Down [syndrome] or autism could be genetically related and that we should rid ourselves of all of that. I wonder what we’d do to human society when we view every genetic anomaly as a problem for human society,” Snider said.
“What harms do we bring to ourselves as a collective society when we remove from ourselves people who are deaf, blind, autistic or Down’s?” Snider said. “Maybe they can contribute in authentic and really important ways to flourishing and embodying the kingdom of God.”
Biological honors society Tri-Beta is in the process of organizing a university-wide panel with faculty from the religion, science and sociology departments to discuss gene editing.
For more information about He’s experimentation, read the AP’s latest update.