Is Gene Editing One Step Too Far?
Originally discovered by a researcher from Osaka University in 1987, gene editing could potentially be used to eliminate heritable diseases through deleting or changing certain coding in embryos. However, the technology involved in this editing is still in the experimental stages, and as such is currently banned in most countries. There is a fear that the changes in DNA could be passed on to future generations, with unpredictable side-effects.
It appears as though these fears are about to be put to the test for the first time in history, as a scientist in China has recently claimed to have produced the world’s first genetically-edited babies. This is yet to be verified, however, if confirmed it could have immense ethical and moral implications.
He Jiankui, a professor from The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, is claiming to have edited embryos for seven couples during fertility treatment. According to him, one pregnancy has resulted from this so far.
Jiankui revealed that all of the men in his experiment had HIV while all of the women did not. However, the fathers’ infections are deeply suppressed thanks to standard HIV medicines. Simple methods exist to prevent them from infecting their offspring.
The existence of these treatments mean that the scientist’s intervention was not aimed at preventing HIV transmission. Instead, he hoped to provide the offspring with protection against the disease, reducing their chances of contracting it during their lifetime.
This breakthrough intervention has raised many ethical questions.
Any editing errors within the genes could have potentially fatal effects on the growth of the foetus.
Experts worry that we won’t know the full consequences of this gene editing until we can study future generations of the offspring concerned. Even if the editing works perfectly, people without normal genes may be at a greater risk of contracting other viruses.
Ethical questions have also been raised regarding consent. With the consent forms referring to the experiment as an Aids Vaccine Development Programme it is likely that the participants were not made fully aware of the potential risks of the study.
What is particularly shocking is the fact that Jiankui’s work remained a secret for so long. He did not register the clinical trial with Chinese authorities until November, long after the study had begun.
As a country that has been at the forefront of gene editing for several years, China has failed to update its regulations at the same pace. A 2003 ‘ethics guidance’ document bans the use of research embryos for reproduction. However, the punishments for violations of this regulation remain unspecified.
While China have declared He Jiankui’s work a violation of their law, the incident serves to highlight a concerning gap in their ethical review processing.
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