By Camille Jones
On November 26th, 2018, the first gene-edited human beings were born.
This may sound like the tagline of a new dystopian novel, but it’s all too real. Using a gene editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9 (a technology that allows scientists to edit parts of the genome by adding, removing or altering sections of the DNA sequence), Chinese scientist He Jiankui claims to have edited two embryos which were then carried to term by a woman named Grace. By deactivating a gene called CCR5, the babies were altered to be resistant to the virus HIV. Editing the genome of an embryo means that every single cell in the resulting human being is changed– even their reproductive cells. Now, gene editing itself is not new. October 28th, 2016, a man with aggressive lung cancer was injected with CRISPR-Cas9 edited cells in Chengdu, China. The problem is, there is a huge difference between editing single cells, and editing an embryo. A huge ethical difference.
Many scientists and even the government of China itself have argued that this experiment was highly unethical. It’s even been called “a grave abuse of human rights,” according to the Center for Genetics and Society. The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He conducted this experiment, has all but shunned him. Why?
An article published in The Atlantic details exactly what the public is concerned about. The most notable claims are that he operated under secrecy; acted against the consensus of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; contradicted his own stated thoughts on the ethics of genome editing; and that the parents may not have known what they were getting into.
China’s National Health Commission has ordered an investigation into the claim in order to verify it. Among the outcry, a group of over 100 Chinese scientists wrote a letter detailing their anger and disgust. Their conclusion was clear.
“The Pandora’s Box has been opened, but we may still have a chance to close it before it is irreparable.”