Last November, geneticist He Jiankui announced at a conference in Hong Kong that he has proudly edited the genes of several embryos, two of which (twin girls) have been born
(not quite what was on the agenda presented to the conference of what he was to discuss. Surprise!). The results were a cacophony of disapproval and disgust from the scientific community. Such an action, in fact, is illegal in both the UK and the US, but only frowned upon in China- where the experiment was conducted. Even the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis S. Collins, stated that it was “a deeply disturbing willingness by Dr. He and his team to flaunt international ethical norms”. A professor of genetics and embryology at the Francis Crick Institute in London asked He, “Why so much secrecy around this, particularly when you know the general feeling around the scientific community is, we shouldn’t go ahead yet?”
There are reasons the town’s people arrived with pitchforks and torches at the doors of Dr. Frankenstein. The technology He chose to use, a company called Crispr, was a new technology that requires more in-depth research and understanding. And earlier efforts on editing embryos in a laboratory dish have resulted in unintended effects such as off-target mutations in other genes, or mosaicism- when an altered gene appears in some cells, but not in others. Furthermore, embryo editing makes changes that are passed on to subsequent generations, potentially forever altering hundreds of people. And of course, there’s the Super Babies you can make; special skills, your desired physical features- alterations that have nothing to do with devastating genetic diseases that could be avoided. In other words, ethically speaking, and quite literally, He is altering the operating instructions of a human being.
The reason behind He’s attempts, and his intention for the experiment, were to alter the cells of embryos from accepting the HIV virus. Now, HIV is a devastating virus; infecting 5,000 people every day. In the US, there are nearly 40,000 people living with HIV and in China, it’s up to 1.5 million. The fathers used in He’s experiment all had HIV and both parents were fully aware of the possible repercussions and risks. So, I understand the gravity behind the motivation to fix this problem. Couples can feel like there’s no hope to have their own children and start a family, for who would want to have a child that would have to battle this for its entire life if there was another option? And though I share the same age as He of 34, he comes with years of education and experimenting on this very subject. He studied at both Rice and Stanford universities in the US before opening a lab at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, where he runs two genetics companies. He also tested embryonic gene editing on animals for three years prior to testing on humans. However, it can still be a shot in the dark.
I would like to say for the record that I personally believe that sometimes radical notions need to be made against all odds in order to make scientific improvements to benefit the human race. Indeed, much of the world of scientific discoveries, experiments, and theories have radically altered humans against all odds. And it is because of science our species has come so far and thrived. But I also believe that we have peer-reviewed material for a reason.
Our job as scientists is to question the world in every way, be open-minded, and push the boundaries over and over again in order for hypothesized improvement, albeit amongst our peers who have done the very same. And it is possible that the testing and studying of a subject surpasses the lives of many scientists because it is not yet ready to be conducted on humans. Now, I don’t know He personally. Perhaps there was some emotional justification for his decision; a brother or a friend who died of AIDS. And being a gay man myself and susceptible to infection, that is something I must be cautious and aware of frequently. It was not long ago that the men of my community would witness their closest friends and loved ones dropping like flies around them. I will praise the day when we find a cure to eliminate HIV forever, and we will get there. But I do not support the naïve decisions to impatiently do something with such high risk and infancy, that the majority of the scientific community is viscerally against it. That is not noble or radical, it is childish and egotistical. I do not know the future of gene editing in embryos and I do not yet know my opinion on it, other than that we are still far from its fruition for many reasons.
Regardless, He is sequestered into his offices at Shenzhen by multiple body guards. The twins will be frequently monitored until the age of 18, and it is still unclear of what China will do to Dr. He or if they will do anything at all. Xu Nanping, China’s vice-minister of science and technology, said that the Chinese government had issued regulations in 2003 that permitted gene-editing experiments on embryos for research purposes, but only if they remain viable no more than 14 days. If the Chinese authorities confirm that the babies were born, that would be in violation of current regulations, Mr. Xu said. So, what is done is done and we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
Kansas Stanton is a Neo-Pagan who resides in Seattle, Washington. He belongs to, and practices with, a local group of Reform Pagans and blogs at https://leavesontheroad.wordpress.com/. He also volunteers every year at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle and regularly attends various Pagan festivals and events.
He is a full-time student, earning his degree in Environmental Science and a Certificate in Sustainability, after which time he will move on to grad school (climate science). When Kansas is not in class or working his job in the art industry, he also attends heavy metal concerts both locally and internationally. He is also a vegan outdoorsman who frequents the trails and whitewater rivers of the pacific northwest and loves to spend his time with friends over a cold, dark beer.