On November 25, He Jiankui, a scientist at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China announced, via YouTube, that he had created the world’s first genetically engineered babies. He said twin girls, Lulu and Nana, had been born via in vitro fertilization. The embryos used to create the twins were altered with a genetic editing tool known as CRISPR. He said the goal was to make it harder for HIV to invade and infect their white blood cells by creating a genetic message associated with enhanced resistance to acquiring AIDS. The girls, he claims, needed this protection since their fathers had the HIV virus. More genetically altered children are, He says, on the way.
“For this specific case, I feel proud, actually,” he said at a conference on Wednesday.
Some doubt that He accomplished what he says because there is no peer-reviewed paper to back up his claim. But He is no scientific slouch. He trained at Rice University and Stanford University and has been invited to many conferences of elite scientists who are perfecting gene editing technologies. He is also a moral idiot who has engaged in a renegade experiment that may well setback the very promising field of germline genetic engineering a decade or more.
Fear of changing genes that are passed from one generation to the next — germline engineering — runs deep. Altering the inherited properties of our children strikes many as manufacturing people. Add a bit of 20th century eugenics à la Nazi Germany into the mix and fear turns rapidly into prohibition.
The engineering of human embryos under these circumstances is nothing short of immoral grandstanding.
I am not among those who think it’s unethical to change the genes of our children. If it is possible to eliminate forever diseases such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, sickle cell disease, fragile X syndrome, Huntington’s disease, and a slew of other genetic killers that plague humanity, then I think germline genetic engineering is ethically sound and must be pursued. But pursued is not the same as going underground, lying about your work, and putting children at risk. That’s where we are with this moral monstrosity of an experiment.
Why am I so harsh in my condemnation? Five reasons.
First, CRISPR is not yet ready for germline use. Research into ways to improve the reliability and accuracy of this gene editing technique is still underway. And relatively little lab or animal work has been done on engineering embryos. Putting kids who can’t consent at risk when CRISPR technology is still evolving is stupendously immoral.
Second, He and his colleagues recently published an ethics paper (yes, an ethics paper!) called “Draft Ethical Principles for Therapeutic Assisted Reproductive Technologies.” The authors must have known that He was engaged in a relevant experiment that was not disclosed in the publication. Nondisclosures like that are conniving and totally unacceptable. The paper should be withdrawn as fraudulent.
Third, all of He’s experiments have been announced by “press conference” or videos posted online. He should release a paper describing what he did, the informed consent that was used, and why he did it. If he doesn’t, he shouldn’t claim to be doing scientific research. Anything less is just marketing.
Fourth, conflict of interest is swirling around this use of gene editing. Patents are being sought and new clients are being attracted to the infertility program on which He worked. No one should be the sole evaluator of their own potentially lucrative work.
Fifth, nothing appears to have been done to prepare for possible failure. What if the twins do have HIV? What if the gene tweak causes a birth defect or premature aging or vulnerability to other diseases and viruses. Who is liable? Who will pay the costs for the children of an experiment gone wrong?
The engineering of human embryos under these circumstances is nothing short of immoral grandstanding. If the experiment goes wrong or consent and oversight were flouted, He could very well set the promising field of germline gene editing back substantially. Prohibitions on research could be imposed or funding for research withdrawn. He and his collaborators will not be heroic pioneers, but the moral putzes who delayed real, scientifically sound efforts to fix genetic diseases.