By Vicky Liu ‘20, Reporter, and Julian Duvivier ‘22, Arts and Technology Reporter 1-9-18
Imagine the ability to completely eradicate a disease plaguing humanity. This disease is not bacterial and cured through vaccination; that is the feat of an earlier era. Instead, the disease is one prevented at birth, through a small, insignificant change that preemptively stops it from ever taking hold. Now, imagine a child born with a brittle and weak skeleton, always hurting because of uncontrolled physical deformities. I am sure we would all wish that the child’s condition were to never exist. Finally, imagine a child cursed with a blood disease that causes a constant and lifelong pain. The doctors predict it and offer to cure it many months before the child would see the light of day. The parents happily accept, but make one request. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” they say, “if our child had brilliant sea-green eyes?”
The invention of CRISPR. CRISPR is a cheap and easy gene-editing tool, invented in the mid-2000s. It was an incredible step in biological engineering and medicine. As science continued to tap into its possibilities, a new host of applications in the field of genetics emerged. Chief among these was the newfound ability for humans to alter DNA in ways that would fundamentally change the human genome. This has opened up a slew of questions about how we would utilize our newfound abilities and about the discovery’s scientific and ethical ramifications. While many consider CRISPR an incredible step in medical technology, many also urged caution, often in fear of consequences or the creation of “designer babies” edited to fit a very specific definition for humanity. For the most part, this has been entirely baseless speculation, at least up until recently.
In November, Dr. He Jiankui, a Chinese Scientist located in Shenzhen, claimed to have altered the DNA of human embryos, resulting in the births of genetically modified twins with the pseudonyms Nana and Lulu. This has begun a similar controversy around the limitation and regulation of the technology. In many respects, He Jiankui's process was thorough and scientifically rigorous. In the early embryonic state, he altered the gene CCR5 to give the children HIV immunity. CCR5 is a good choice as the first modification because it has been researched quite extensively and its alteration shows no negative effects. The trouble, however, is severe: He Jiankui did not have his experiment reviewed by the scientific community beforehand and failed to be transparent in the specifics of his process. Put simply, his actions were a major violation of scientific conduct.
He Jiankui's experiment has drawn the disapproval of many in the scientific community and in the public at large. Many esteemed experts have questioned his integrity, including the biologist and former president of Caltech, David Baltimore. Baltimore said at the recent Hong Kong genetics summit that he “thinks there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community due to a lack of transparency.” While He Jiankui has presented his work as life-changing and virtuous, many people following the events have questioned whether the process was premature and medically necessary.
From another perspective, our resident biologist, Dr. Sonia Chin, shares her insight on He Jiankui’s research: “This kind of human application is very premature.” She explains, “The scientific community has only begun manipulating and adapting the CRISPR system for use outside of its native bacteria since about 2012. In scientific time, six years is not very long, so right now we do not have a comprehensive understanding of potentially very severe, off-target effects that might occur in an organism modified using this tool.” She elaborates upon another severe long-term problem raised by He Jiankui's research, “From a population biology standpoint, CRISPR might induce unintended mutations that could drastically decrease a person’s quality of life that now can be passed down for generations and could potentially spread at a population level.” The gene-editing took place in the embryos’ germ cells, rather than in the somatic cells, making the changes inheritable through generations. Given the potential to drive human evolution and the associated risks, Dr. Chin feels that it quickly becomes complicated to talk about the rights of people with altered genes to give birth.
Jim Rosengarten, our history department chair, contributed to the discussion from an ethical and philosophical standpoint. As he sees it, the invention of a new technology is followed by new scientific avenues and applications, many of which will be dangerous if used improperly. Mr. Rosengarten relates this to Pandora’s Box, as once new knowledge comes to light it is “hard to take away the knowledge.”
Jim entertains a Libertarian viewpoint on this issue. He values the freedom of the human mind to explore the world without repression, expressing that, “It’s important to allow human beings to use this great gift of a brain that we have. We should be able to think, create, and conquer with total freedom. Anything that tries to prevent human thought must be cautiously addressed.” However, Jim also considers the idea of eugenics and the desire to manipulate genes to create a better human being. He points out that, “[The discovery] starts to lead down the slippery slope of what a good human being is. Is a good human being with blue eyes and blonde hair?” Mr. Rosengarten definitely hopes that we do not use such a superficial definition and, instead, cautions us to be careful in such matters. Indeed, gene-editing technology stresses us to ruminate on the definition and standards of humanity in order to avoid the misapplication of the technology which might exacerbate racial inequality.
Although He Jiankui’s research has the capability to enhance humanity, it is a tremendous violation of scientific procedure and, in the opinion of many, morality. Many have asked who should be the regulator of gene modification. In Jim’s eyes, the answer is clear. “We all should be,” he asserts. These events have shown that, given forethought coupled with transparency, we and the scientific community can, and hopefully will, self-regulate and steer ourselves down a moral path. In many ways, we are in the Golden Age of Biology. As long as we tread with care and curiosity as our guides, we will be on the path to doing something amazing. To quote Dr. Chin, “In the next 10 years, CRISPR will continue to be used as a powerful tool in research to understand the many complex phenomena in biology and to treat somatic disorders. I hope that in 20 years, we will be approaching this topic with care and some legal regulation to ensure that CRISPR is used responsibly.”