Engineered babies and not-so-good intentions

Dr. He Jiankui seemed desperate to be famous. 

Dr. He (pronounced "huh") broke a hard taboo in bio research. He altered the genes of embryos and then had them implanted in a woman. Changes in embryo genes do not stop at one individual but get passed on from generation to generation.

Implanting genetically altered human embryos is forbidden in much of the world, including the U.S. and China. This is not to be confused with editing the genes of a gravely ill adult, which affects just that one person.

Dr. He evidently thought that bringing forth the first gene-edited babies − twins delivered last October − would bathe him in fame, glory, wealth and the enduring gratitude of his native China. Fame is all he's received, and not the good kind. Calling his work "extremely abominable," China took Dr. He into custody. He has not been publicly heard from since, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation. And fellow scientists and bioethicists are burying him in scorn.

Here's the dilemma: Gene editing could be used for enormous good or enormous harm. The former can lead ambitious scientists to wrap their ethically troubling work in good intentions.

Dr. He says used CRISPR-Cas9, the powerful new gene editing tool, to make the embryos of a woman and her husband, who has HIV, resistant to his infection. Chinese law bans the use of fertility treatment using the sperm of an HIV-positive man. Was this brilliant scientist's skirting of the law and medical ethics justified on humanitarian grounds?

Absolutely not. A fertility treatment can remove the HIV virus from sperm. That may make the Chinese law unreasonable, but the couple could have gone to another country. In any case, a man's desire to pass on his DNA should not supersede the risks to society of creating genetically modified people, especially in an unsupervised lab.

A major concern is that while scientists may know what a particular gene does, they're less clear on how changing that gene will alter its interactions with other genes. These worries have grown with ongoing work on farm animals.

Deleting a gene called MSTN can make an animal meatier. But offspring inheriting that resigned DNA have shown disturbing changes. Pigs were found to have developed an extra vertebrae. Rabbits had enlarged tongues. Some lamb fetuses grew so big they had to be taken out of their mothers by caesarian sections.

What may have pushed Dr. He to charge ahead was news in 2017 that researchers at Oregon Health & Science University had fixed a heart condition in a viable embryo using the CRISPR technology. But they destroyed the embryo. Dr. He probably figured that someone would soon present an actual gene-edited baby, and he wanted to be the first.

A group of prominent scientists from seven countries has called for a global moratorium on changing human sperm, eggs or embryos to make genetically altered children. Other panels haven't gone that far, but all have agreed that this work should not be done for the physical "enhancement" of people.

Which reminds one of an old "Twilight Zone" in which all women are forced to conform to the same standard of beauty. In this version, it's done through mandatory plastic surgery. "It may not happen tomorrow," Rod Serling intones ominously, "but it happens now, in The Twilight Zone."

The ability to alter genes may have seemed totally far out in 1964, but here we are. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.

Froma Harrop's column is distributed by Creators Syndicate.

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