It’s still not clear whether Chinese scientist He Jiankui really managed to create the world’s first genetically edited human babies immune to HIV. His claims, which were first made public late last month, haven’t been independently verified, and Mr. He appears to have recently gone missing.
But the international outrage Mr. He’s alleged experiment caused and the ethical concerns it raised are very real.
Gene editing has been used in all sorts of experiments, including on humans, to search for cures to deadly diseases or ways to build stronger crops, for example.
Brazilian researchers even claim to have developed a genetic modification that could cause entire populations of mosquitoes to self-destruct.
Some potential uses for gene editing, like curing leukemia in children, are obviously beneficial. Others, like the mosquito experiment, are a good bit more ethically complicated.
But editing a human embryo is a clear no-no, because unlike tampering with adult genomes, altering an embryo changes every cell in the resulting human’s body. Those altered traits can get passed down to the next generation, potentially changing humanity forever.
As if that weren’t enough, there are also obvious issues with consent, since embryos can’t agree to participate in an experiment. We’re not sure what health risks might result from an experiment gone wrong. And there are plenty of philosophical questions about the extent to which humans should tamper with nature.
That’s why editing an embryo is illegal in the United States and most of Europe. It should stay that way.
Of course, there’s not much need to fear that scientists will start creating “designer babies” with superhuman intelligence, strength or beauty, even if it were legal. In fact, gene editing isn’t very likely to be a good way to cure most diseases either.
Most human traits are controlled by lots of different genes in ways we don’t fully understand.
But some diseases are rooted in single genes, raising the possibility that a relatively straightforward intervention could prevent babies from suffering from debilitating genetic disorders. That’s a tantalizing goal, but one that also carries significant risk.
Theoretically, Mr. He’s intervention could help protect his patients from HIV infection, based on studies of people with the same naturally occurring genetics who appear to be mostly immune to the virus. But there are downsides.
Scientists think, for example, that the gene related to HIV infection also has something to do with susceptibility to West Nile virus and other diseases, including the flu. Increasing immunity to one illness might make the others more deadly.
And there are plenty of other, much more straightforward ways to prevent HIV infection, rendering the whole intervention even more irresponsible.
Mr. He’s experiment also points to the problem of rogue science more generally, which is increasingly common in places like China that don’t always regulate research as closely as the United States, and which are putting pressure on scientists to develop breakthrough technologies.
Gene edited embryos could impact all of humanity, regardless of borders. So we need a strong international framework for overseeing any research in that field.
Last week, the World Health Organization announced it would put together a panel to study the issue. That’s a good start.
But we also shouldn’t let Mr. He’s recklessness discourage legitimate, responsible research in gene editing, which has plenty of potential for safe, beneficial uses. It’s just important that we draw clear ethical lines and make sure they don’t get crossed.