It finally happened (probably)— the first CRISPR baby is here
It had to happen at some point. You did not need to be a prophet to predict the birth of the first CRISPR baby. More than two years ago, in May 2015, the science journal Nature in an article entitled the same asked the question: „Where in the world could the first CRISPR baby be born?“ Its answer was: Japan, China, India, or Argentina. It seems that we have now got an answer to this question. While some experts remain skeptical and reluctant to reach a conclusion, an independent study of the babiesis still pending,and there is still much speculation, it is clear that the announcement by researcher Jiankui He of the South University of Science and Technology in Shenzen, China, has made a dramatic impact on the fieldof bioscience: The Chinese researcher claims to have created the first genetically edited humans. Specifically, he claims to have altered their genome such that they are immune for life to infection with the HIV virus.
As a reminder: CRISPR, its full name being „clustered regular interspaced short palindromic repeats“, can be used to replace, modify or remove genetic sequences in living organisms with pinpoint accuracy, and this, fast, accurately and very cheaply. This has led to widespread concerns and heated debates among scientists, ethicists and patients – unfortunately less among politicians – since the discovery of this method some five years ago. There is tremendous opportunity in the clinical work and treatment, respectively prevention of diseaseson the one hand, and the prospect that it will inevitably be used to change human properties for non-medical reasons such as improvement of the intelligence or outward attractiveness of a person, on the other hand. If it were to be proven right what He claims this would be a scientific as well as ethical dam failure.
Even though it is still unclear whether the CRISPR babies Nana and Lulu actually exist, biologists have long known that such a „production“ is technically possible. After all, the method has been successfully applied to monkeys, and it is not that much that distinguishes us humans from monkeys genetically. It has also been long known that, while in the West gene manipulation of the human embryo and subsequent implantation of manipulated embryos into the mother’s uterus are strictly forbidden and concerns about such forms of eugenics are generally very great, China’s eugenic attitudes are much more flexible. But even among Chinese scientists He’s announcementcreated a great public outcry. Hes University in Shenzhen, for example, said it had not known about the trials. „We are deeply shocked,“ was posted on the college website. Other Chinese researchers also express massive criticism: „Direct human experimentation can only be described as crazy,“ reads a letter signed by 122 researchers. The experiments are a „blow to the worldwide reputation of Chinese science.“ It is also unclear whether the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) knew at all about the experiments.
So is this just a PR stunt of a single rouge scientist? With all the outcry from ethicists, especially from China, we have to realize that there does not exist a global ban on human germ line interventions. China and other countries know no law that prohibits this. In addition, He’s announcement came just one day before a major international conference on human genome editing in Hong Kong. Three years ago, the CAS teamed with the British and US National Academies to reach a global consensus on the ethical consequences and permissibility of gene editing in the human genome. Between this conference organized by the international alliance and the announcement of He experts see a clear connection. And as we have leant in the meantime, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has withdrawn from the alliance some time ago. The public discussion about gene editing in the human genome was probably too explosive for it.
However, there are incentives for Chinese scientists and the Chinese government to behave in an internationally accepted way. It is clear to them that the implantation of a CRISPR-treated embryo into the maternal uterus will violate the international scientific ethical consensus and would meet with fierce opposition from the rest of the world. And to appear as a shameless rogue state and thus seeing its international scientific reputation be damaged the Chinese want to avoid at all circumstances.
But not only between Chinese and damage Western science would the CRISPR babies, if proven as such, create a rift. They could also jeopardize the relationship between science and society globally, which could throw us back years in the development of truly valuable therapies. Because good science does not just mean creating knowledge in a vacuum. Rather, its context and effects are of crucial importance to society as a whole and must therefore also be discussed within it. The irresponsible experiments of He did not exactly contribute to such a constructive dialogue.
Furthermore, the choice of the specific gene that has been altered was quite poor: the risk of becoming infected with HIV within one’s lifetime is extremely low, and there are many other means of prevention. In addition, AIDS is no longer an incurable disease. It is unjustifiable that these newly born children are exposed to a drastic risk. After all, the experts do not know whether such an intervention may not have completely different, undesirable consequences. We know that CRISPR comes with numerous potential editing errors and that the desired DNA changes lay not be integrated by all cells of an embryo. These effects, called „off targetting“ and „mosaicism“, show that the modification of the human germ line is still a very uncertain and risky business. But He expresses with confidence that nothing has changed in the genome of the babies, except for the one targeted modification. Thus,off-target effects were not an issue. How can he be so sure? To play with the health of children and the hopes of families in order to use them for the purpose of a cheap publicity stunt is nothing short of a shame.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences still draws a red line when it comes to genetic intervention in the human germ line for the purpose of improving human characteristics and capabilities such as intelligence or attractiveness. However, these are not directly relevant at this point, as R. Alta Charo, Co-Chair of the NAS Study Committee and Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, points out: „We continue to have a public fascination with the least likely applications of CRISPR, germline editing, which will be the most complicated use to evaluate in terms of its risks and benefits, and enhancement — using CRISPR not to treat a disease but to improve someone’s appearance, strength, or other traits.“ We will see how this least probable application will actually develop in the next few years. Even Jennifer Doudna, a pioneer of the CRISPR method, who raised major concerns over germline editing in 2015, now believes that „we are moving toward a time when people will start using genome editing in human embryos.“ That is what she thinks make international directives all the more urgent. Unfortunately, the main actor with whom to reach agreement is not present any longer at the conference targeting exactly such a discussion.