On November 26, a day before the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, announced that he created the world’s first genetically modified babies. This has left the Summit, China, and scientists internationally stunned that such an announcement with little evidence was made. If false, Jiankui has ethical questions he will need to face. If true, the world has ethical questions it will need to face while going forward with these twin girls as well as genome editing as a whole.
Genetically editing humans is a topic of much stagnant discussion in the scientific community, and for good reason. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), the tool typically used to edit living organisms, is one of the best tools for the future of genetic editing and replication. It has been used in the past to grow human organs out of sample cells from human patients, and it shows promise for occasional use in organ transplants (given the success found in modifying and transplanting pig organs into human bodies). However, it was yet to be used to modify genes in human babies, and was widely agreed to not be used on humans by the scientific community.
The potential for this technology, however, is staggering. The twin girls were not genetically modified just for the sake of doing so; rather, they were modified to ensure that they are resistant to the HIV virus their father carried that would have genetically been passed on if not for the effort of Jiankui and his team.
This technology is still relatively new. Efforts to use CRISPR (or otherwise) have only really been in place since 2008. Yet an individual’s DNA stays with them for life and can have life-changing consequences. An organism as complex as humans does not have a full life-view of what to expect when meddling with what essentially makes us us. CRISPR’s effectiveness can be seen with other organisms such as rats; however, they’re not nearly as complex as humans, and it is by no means ready for use on humans as the technology some fear could cause cancer as certain proteins are affected by it causing the cell to self-destruct. Especially when replacing a gene that causes a disease such as HIV.
What does all of this mean for the future of these daughters and the technology going further? That’s exactly the question that was addressed during the summit. These questions still have yet to be resolved, but they must be, sooner than expected, considering the events of November 26, as not only the scientific community, but the life of two daughters must now be considered.
We knew that this day would come, however, the danger is that we may have jumped the gun. With religious and moral concerns already in place when performing these operations on animals, this has propelled the human race forward without alarm. We have no preparation to ready the scientific and legal community of this practice. Much less, the world.