What was once considered as science fiction is now a reality as Chinese Professor He Jiankui has claimed to have edited the DNA of twin girls, resulting in the world’s first genetically edited babies. Current laws allow scientists to do gene editing on discarded IVF embryos that must be destroyed immediately afterwards, yet Professor He has taken an illegal step forward. Professor He spoke at the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong where he stated he was “proud” of editing the genes of twin girl embryos to prevent the twins from contracting HIV. Professor He’s actions have been widely described by scientists as “monstrous” and are considered a dangerous breach of medical ethics and responsible research.
According to the BBC, Professor He claims to have used the Crispr gene editing tool, which works by using “molecular scissors” to alter DNA. Such science has the potential to help avoid heritable diseases by deleting or altering problematic coding in embryos. However, experts are concerned that such science could cause more harm than good by not only changing the individual’s DNA, but also future generations that inherit the same alternations. Ethics expert Professor Julian Savulescu from the University of Oxford commented on He’s claim, that “if true, this experiment is monstrous. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.” This condemnation is not to say that gene editing will not someday become a safe and common medical practice. Yet currently, as stated by Professor Eric J. Topol of Scripps Research Institute, “there are still too many risks, too many unknowns, about tinkering with our heritable genetic blueprint.”
While Professor He’s experiment on the twin girls may appear as an advancement in AIDS treatment, it unfortunately has the potential to make the twin girls needlessly vulnerable to other infections such as influenza or Nile fever. According to the New York Times, previous studies have shown that it is possible to disable the risk of AIDS without altering the DNA. Therefore, with six billion letters in the genome that have the potential to be affected, the risks of experimental gene editing in humans currently outweigh the benefits. While the implantation of edited human embryos is widely banned, further extensive scrutiny by the international community is needed to ensure that Professor He’s actions do not set a dangerous precedent for the welcoming of unethical experimentation. The international community and states must also begin to focus on the progressing of gene editing laws as such technology is quickly advancing.
It is unknown whether the experimental gene editing on the twin girls was truly successful or safe, but what is known is that this experiment was irresponsible and against current medical ethics. Overall, gene editing is still very much in the grey realm of science, and therefore should not be used on human babies until its consequences are more clearly understood.