Watching Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman run around on screen in Gattaca was fun. The dystopian world of the movie, in which the genes of children could be individually selected, was not frightening, but rather dramatic and interesting, but only because that world was different from our own. Nowadays, with current gene-editing technology such as CRISPR continuing to develop and claims that such technology has successfully been used on humans, this fictional world does not seem quite so far off, which raises questions as to how this technology could be used in the future, as well as whether or not it should be.
He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, made headlines earlier this week when he claimed to have altered the genes of two twin babies born earlier this month. Unsurprisingly, the statement sparked fierce controversy, only intensified when it was reported on November 28, across several different platforms, that a second woman from He’s study may be pregnant. If these claims are true, He will have helped to create the first ever genetically-edited babies.
He’s claims are certainly shocking, but why are they significant? What would successfully being able to edit an unborn baby’s genes really do? He claims that in genetically-editing the babies born earlier this month, he deleted a particular gene that makes humans susceptible to HIV/AIDS. Although there are treatment options for HIV, there is no cure, and the possibility of being able to genetically edit embryos so that they are resistant to the virus could potentially reduce the amount of people who contract it in the future which, if successful, would certainly be a positive result.
The possibilities suggested by He’s claims are certainly exciting- it is hard not to imagine whether or not the scope could be broadened to include the prevention of various diseases other than HIV/AIDS, leading to a happier, healthier society. Despite these exciting possibilities, it is equally important to consider the negative outcomes that may arise out of He’s application of gene-editing technology to unborn babies. As stated by The New York Times, “The methods used for gene editing can inadvertently alter other genes in unpredictable ways.” In other words, editing a particular gene could unexpectedly affect other genes. Therefore, the application of this technology to embryos could lead to unforeseen, potentially undesirable ramifications. If a scientist is not fully aware of the full range of effects editing one gene may have, is it really ethical to be editing the genes of an embryo at all? Additionally, what will the limits of this application be if it becomes available in the future? Which genes should be edited and which ones shouldn’t, and who gets to make those choices?
He’s claims to have helped create a genetically-edited baby are understandably generating a range of different reactions. If true, this may be a breakthrough in disease prevention, but the application of gene-editing technology to embryos may be premature. Is it really ethical to be applying this technology to human test subjects? Additionally, if this application is successful, what will its limitations be? These questions are difficult, but require definitive answers when looking forwards to the future.
Photo: He Jiankui/BBC