The boundaries of ethics

He Jiankui, who claims to have made the world’s firstgene-edited babies, deserves to be rapped but not condemned
In November, Chinese researcher He Jiankui set off a storm when he claimed that he had created the world’s first babies, a pair of twin girls, genetically edited with CRISPR-cas9. He said that the twins had genes now that protected them from HIV. Ideally this should have been a laudable scientific advancement. But Mr. He has been condemned, not only by peers in China but by geneticists, biotechnologists and ethicists worldover. Mr. He broke the scientific and regulatory protocol by not vetting his experiments, which involved embryos and hopeful parents, by his organisation’s ethics committees. He also expounded on his work to non-scientists before submitting his work for peer-review. These are enough grounds to invalidate any medico-scientific investigation, however novel and groundbreaking. Yet the greater consternation is that an ethical red line has been transgressed. Harvard geneticist George Church is on a project to resurrect a version of the extinct woolly mammoth. The purported reason for ‘de-extinctifying’ this animal is that the Asian elephant is endangered and susceptible to a herpes virus. Therefore, having a new closely related species, sans the virus, could mean saving it. There’s also a global warming kicker. The new species would live in the Siberian permafrost and punch holes in the snow and prevent tundra permafrost from melting and releasing greenhouse gases. While Professor Church agrees that these are speculative ideas, it would be naïve to assume that his work is of interest only to elephant conservationists. Every single step towards recreating the mammoth will inform understanding on how to safely and effectively alter cells to delete harmful genes and eventually promote ‘healthy ones’ in humans. Before Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for pioneering the technique of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), they were accused of meddling with nature, and no further public funding for their research was allowed. The New York Times reported that a ‘three-parent baby’ (incorporating DNA from three people) was first created in the U.S. in the 1990s and no permissions were granted by the authorities for this. The doctors were denied public funding but there was no worldwide condemnation and no compelling reason other than infertility in some patients and educated guesses that motivated the doctors. The history of IVF shows that there was no demonstrable case made for the necessity of test-tube babies and neither were there years of evidence from, say, primate studies for scientists to conclude that IVF babies would be as healthy or no more at risk from infections than naturally conceived babies. The evidence for its suitability and safety only emerged over time. Assuming that Mr. He’s done what he claims, he deserves to be rapped but not condemned or vilified. He’s broken a red light, not crossed a rubicon.

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