0331 GMT February 19, 2019
Last week, the Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of the first Crispr baby (actually, twins).
His claim is unverified, but if true, it would signal a landmark moment in human genome editing, theguardian.com wrote.
It has also been widely condemned by scientists and ethicists worldwide.
Crispr-Cas 9 is a technique that allows researchers to cut DNA at a specific point and then to edit the genome. It holds great promise in the battle against many diseases and disorders, but our understanding of the technique is still in its infancy.
Most observers see He’s work as reckless and unethical, given the paucity of our knowledge.
Much Crispr research attempts to disable faulty genes, producing conditions such as cystic fibrosis. He excised a normal gene called CCR5, which encodes a protein that allows HIV to enter a cell, to try to reduce the risk of a disease that neither child had.
“This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit,” said Oxford University ethicist, Julian Savulescu.
Much of the criticism is to the point. Particularly contentious is “germline” editing that modifies the genome in an egg, sperm or embryo; all changes are passed on to future generations. To burden future generations with possibly dangerous genomic alterations is, many argue, unconscionable.
There is a danger, though, that the specific condemnation of He’s approach could turn into a wider assault on the whole idea of genome editing.
Certainly, any alteration to the germline should be undertaken only with the greatest of care and with far more knowledge than we currently possess. Hence the condemnation of He. But the possibilities inherent in genome-editing techniques to help prevent and treat disorders, from cystic fibrosis to cancer, are tremendous. He’s work may be unethical, but there is nothing ethically superior in condemning future generations to terrible medical conditions if it were possible safely to eliminate them.
* Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist.