A scientist handles a tube. (Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg)

Genetically Modified Babies Were Inevitable as DNA Tech Advanced

(Bloomberg) -- When a Chinese researcher claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies, he traversed a boundary many people in medicine had long feared would be crossed.

Thanks to the proliferation and fast-falling cost of new genetic technology, that one day scientists would alter the DNA of an unborn person was increasingly inevitable. He Jiankui, a U.S.-educated scientist based in Shenzhen, said that he had used the gene-editing tool known as Crispr to tailor the genes of twin girls born this month to make them resistant to HIV.

Genetically Modified Babies Were Inevitable as DNA Tech Advanced

The propulsive pace of technological development has put genetic science on a crash course with seemingly intractable problems of medical ethics, the desirability of designer babies, overlapping regulatory regimes and the long-term implications of tinkering with fundamental building blocks of human life.

“The ability to use some of these new technologies is becoming more ubiquitous and it doesn’t take as much sophistication,’’ said Food and Drug Administration head Scott Gottlieb in an interview with Bloomberg. “You can be a Ph.D. and have your own lab and be doing some of these techniques in your basement.’’

Genetic science has marked advance after advance in recent years, with many significant breakthroughs happening in China, where some observers say there are fewer constraints. The increasing ubiquity and sophistication of genetic technologies has made controlling their use difficult, and there have been few attempts at developing international standards for regulating them.

In 2015, a separate group of Chinese researchers received much criticism after announcing that they had made the first genetic modifications to a human embryo. Two years later, U.S. scientists accomplished the same feat, and an influential advisory group formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine gave cautious support to the modification of human embryos.

“Despite the fact that this is the most significant experiment in the history of human genetics, it is operating with a laissez-faire, let each nation decide approach,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the New York University School of Medicine.

At an international summit on human gene editing in 2015, a Chinese science official said despite strict regulations there on genome editing in human embryos, he couldn’t guarantee that rogue labs and clinics weren’t conducting experiments outside of those bounds. For years, concern has grown that Chinese researchers are operating on the premise of anything goes, speeding ahead with experiments that alter the DNA of human embryos. Such research is either controversial or altogether forbidden in the West.

“There have been signals coming out of China for a few years now’’ that human gene editing was likely to happen, said Caplan.

Immediate Condemnation

He’s work drew immediate condemnation from other scientists who said that it represented a break with established ethical norms.

“There are very few times something like this has happened in the history in medicine,’’ said Eric Topol, a geneticist at Scripps Research Institute, who called the revelation a crisis. “We’re talking about changing every cell of the human body’s 37 trillion cells. That’s never been done before. And it was done in a rogue fashion.’’

Crispr has made it possible to edit tiny segments of a genome, and to perform that editing much more easily than ever before. It’s now also possible to order all the necessary tools to perform basic Crispr experiments online. Some basic genetic work using Crispr can be done for less than $1,000.

So-called germline editing, in which an embryo’s genes are altered in a way that they may be passed to future offspring, is controversial because its effects aren’t well understood, and because of fears that it could be used for purposes other than preventing disease, such as enhancing intelligence or other traits.

At the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, which kicks off this week in Hong Kong, scientists were set to debate these issues. But He’s announcement quickly changed the conversation to one about what to do next, now that genetically edited babies appear to be reality. Several Chinese health institutions disavowed He’s work, and Feng Zhang, a researcher at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University and Crispr pioneer, called for a moratorium on genetically modifying children.

Other Effects

China isn’t the only place where genetic technologies are being moved forward. Self-taught scientists are already modifying frogs in their garages, among other genetic tinkering, even though it’s unclear whether such experimentation is legal.

“You can’t regulate what is being done everywhere around the world,” said Topol, the Scripps Research Institute geneticist.

Topol said that more experimentation remains to be done before further genetic alteration of humans can even be considered. Researchers need to learn more about how editing one gene might cause other changes to the genome and to physiological functions such as the immune system. But, Topol said, since He has undertaken this experiment, scientists should take the opportunity to find out how it worked.

Thus far, He hasn’t published any scientific papers on his work for his peers to review.

“Someday we will have responsible human embryo editing,” said Topol. “This is an inevitably, but it has to be done right.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.