Fears over impact of gene editing case

Societies must ‘regain control’ over gene editing technology, says expert

December 3, 2018
Scientists
Source: Getty
Illegal: He Jiankui claims to have altered the genes of twin babies

The “accessibility” of the technique used by the Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies meant that it was open for use by those “not socialised into the mainstream scientific community”, an expert has claimed.

There was a global outcry from scientists last week after He Jiankui, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, who has been on unpaid leave from the institution since February, claimed that he had used a gene editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, which is banned in most countries, to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born last month. He said that gene editing would help protect the babies from HIV infection.

Chinese authorities said that the work was a violation of Chinese law and called for the suspension of all related activity.

Peter Mills, assistant director at the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said that the case reflects “a failure of socialisation into the scientific community” but it was “no doubt compounded by the failure of oversight in the local context in China”.

“CRISPR is difficult and unproven, and should not have been used in this case, but what we have said in our reports in 2016 and 2018 about it being more accessible than other methods, and therefore being potentially open to use by a wider range of people who are not socialised into the mainstream scientific community, is also true,” he said.

“In the circumstances, it cannot now be for researchers alone to regain control of this situation but for societies more generally.”

Dr Mills added that the outcry should make it “much more unlikely that any bona fide scientist will step out of line” in the future.

Jianming Xu, director of the Genetically Engineered Mouse Shared Resource at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, said that the case “reflected a failure of Dr He’s self-regulation and unethical working environment as well as the weakness of official regulatory laws in some countries”.  

But Julian Savulescu, Uehiro professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, said that there was “a law which prevents gene editing beyond 14 days in China” and Dr He’s “kind of behaviour is impossible to prevent when fame, glory and money are involved”.

“Even if there were effective policing in one country, it would be possible for researchers to move to another jurisdiction,” he said, adding that an international treaty would be “difficult to both police and encourage all relevant countries to sign”.

“The other option is social exclusion. The widespread condemnation even by scientists in favour of gene editing is an important step forward. Refusal to publish results or fund such work would be useful sanctions,” he added.  

Alta Charo, Warren P. Knowles professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, said that she fears the case will “lead to many to call for outright bans” on the development of genome editing.

“Strict regulatory controls can manage the development and future possible uses of germline editing, and prohibitions simply deprive governmental authorities and the public of the opportunity to direct the development and ethical use of the technology,” she said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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