CRISPR’s Consequences: An Ethical Tongue Twister

By Abigail Pavey

The power to create, destroy or modify life has always been a source of great debate between scientists and among society as a whole. But what happens when scientists decide to go undercover and do what they please?

In November 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced to the world that he had created the first genome edited babies. As a result, he could face the death penalty for corruption. The two baby girls, called Lulu (露露) and Nana (娜娜), were born in November 2018 and were designed to be resistant to HIV. Other parents involved in the trial are still expected to give birth.

He’s announcement sparked an investigation by Chinese officials. They confirmed on 21st of January that He Jiankui had “intentionally avoided surveillance and used technology of uncertain safety and effectiveness” and forged ethical review papers. China has said that He and any associated researchers will be punished accordingly. There were additional suspicions that He had not properly explained to the parents involved the potential risks of the procedure, withdrawing their ability to give informed consent.

CRISPR/Cas9 is a DNA editing system that can target specific DNA segments and edit them to give a desired sequence. This incredible technology has the potential to ‘edit out’ mutations that cause genetic diseases. But where is the line between eradicating disease and creating ‘designer babies’? Back in 2005 when its potentials were realised, the scientific community had agreed to not use CRISPR in human embryos until policies were in place to assure no one would exploit this technology – not to mention the fact it has still not been deemed safe to use in this way.

Many scientists have openly spoken out against He Jiankui, including many Chinese researchers. Robin Lovell-Badge, a researcher at the Francis Crick institute, has been quoted as saying “You have a physicist who doesn’t know biology, who wants to do the next big thing – huge ego, lots of money – and he’s working in an environment where pretty much anything goes”.

Although He has not been seen in public, he has defended his research by saying that someone had to take the leap, that the ethics would be developed alongside the discoveries and that his work is comparable to the development of IVF.

To find out more about CRISPR, check out this video from Nature: