Who has the authority to say yes or no to gene-modified babies?
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In the mind of He Jiankui, the answer was simple: the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
That’s according to a March 2017 document that He, a professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, wrote as an ethics case for what he has claimed is the first successful attempt to make babies whose DNA was modified with the gene-editing tool CRISPR while they were eggs in a laboratory.
He is now under investigation by various bodies in China for possibly breaking ethics rules.
In his proposal, however (pictured above), He assured hospital ethics reviewers everything would be fine. He told them that just one month earlier, in February of 2017, the US Academies “for the first time” had approved the idea of editing human embryos in order to treat serious disease.
No matter that the US Academies isn’t a regulator or government body, that it doesn’t approve of or prohibit specific experiments, or that the advisory body’s big gene-editing report of that year cautioned that heritable genome editing “is not ready to be tried in humans.”
To He’s ears, it was the report’s fundamental conclusion that mattered. Despite many notes of caution, that report’s message was clear. It did not endorse a moratorium on CRISPR babies, as some had hoped at the time. Instead, it said the opposite: gene-edited children were ultimately permissible if the goal was to treat or prevent serious illnesses.
He’s surprise effort, which he claims led to the birth of twin girls, is now being resoundingly criticized ahead of an international summit in Hong Kong involving many of the same people who authored the Academies report. So it’s not just He that we should scrutinize, but also the experts who released a report saying, in essence, that the technology of germ-line engineering was inevitable.
To Benjamin Hurlbut, a bioethicist at Arizona State University, the problem is the race to new discoveries, “even where there is serious uncertainty about whether the techniques that get developed should ever be put to use.”
“Researchers can just keep asserting that their ‘basic’ research has nothing to do with clinical applications, and the can gets kicked down the road,” he says. “For decades, the research has been oriented toward science racing ahead, shooting first and asking questions later. That is a circumstance of our own making. But it’s a hard one to wind backward.”
That’s a big deal, especially now that biologists are making huge leaps towards controlling embryos and stem cells in ways that may lead to novel reproductive methods—that is, new ways to make people.
“The dominoes are lined up toward a wide range of uses that many, many people will find irresponsible and objectionable,” says Hurlbut. “As the history of assisted reproductive technologies shows, it is a short step from developing a technique in the lab to using it to produce children, even where serious unknowns remain.”
The problem is that scientists jealously guard their autonomy and want to avoid regulation from governments that could impede some future, as yet undiscovered, truth or technology. That’s why, in their conclaves, you rarely hear them say “No, never” to areas of research.
Today the US Academies posted a statement in response to He’s claims of a CRISPR baby. And guess what? They simply restated the very same 2017 conclusions that the renegade scientist used as his justification.
“Very disappointing, bland statement from #GeneEditSummit organizers on news of rogue #CRISPR baby project by one of their pending meeting speakers. It basically says nothing,” stem-cell biologist Paul Knoepfler tweeted.