Bullish on Gene-Edited Babies? Be Careful.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Rogue use of gene-editing technology always seemed inevitable. Now it appears that it actually may have happened.

Chinese researcher He Jiankui told the world Sunday that he has used Crispr — a powerful new tool that allows precise editing of DNA — to help create what may be the world’s two first genetically edited babies, twins who may be resistant to HIV infection. The claim has caused tremendous uproar, with good reason. This would mark a historic and ethically troubling divergence from scientific consensus on the use of a still emerging technology. 

Strangely, the market seemed to like the news. Shares in Crispr-focused biotech firms Crispr Therapeutics AG and Editas Medicine Inc. rose Monday, highlighting the mercurial nature of these stocks. 

Bullish on Gene-Edited Babies? Be Careful.

These companies aren’t making potentially inheritable changes to embryos, an extremely controversial process that could lead down a slippery and dystopic slope toward designer babies and eugenics.  Instead, these biotechs are focused on gene modification in living patients to treat diseases like sickle cell, and on using the technology to make therapies that use living cells more effectively. This approach is potentially very promising, but it is only just starting tiny tests in humans and we are years away from real proof that it’s workable. That hasn’t stopped these firms from achieving lofty valuations. 

The hype surrounding this technology makes these stocks particularly speculative. On the negative side, these same companies saw their stocks plunge earlier this year after a scientific publication highlighted a potential cancer risk in the use of Crispr.  

As for the latest news, it’s pretty difficult to construct a positive narrative out it, though it appears investors are doing juts that. This is a dubious claim from a scientist that appears to have been operating without full sanction. It’s unclear if he edited embryos at all or successfully, so it’s a stretch to see this as validation of Crispr, let alone of the way that these public biotechs are using it. 

If anything, this development exposes the broader risks of the technology in a way that could lead to regulatory and scientific scrutiny. Theoretically, the furor about editing embryos could stall development of Crispr for that use, leading to more opportunity and a longer commercial runway for the more circumscribed work these companies are doing. But that’s pretty unstable ground for investing. 

Sunday’s news creates a whole host of ethical, moral, and regulatory issues. Monday’s trading should remind investors that even in the sometimes casino-like world of biotech investing, Crispr stocks remain some of the strangest and riskiest around. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.

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