The Moral Concerns Over Gene Editing and the First ‘CRISPR Babies’

A scientist from China named Dr. He Jiankui announced this week that he used gene-editing technology called CRISPR to alter embryos, which were then implanted in the womb of a woman, who gave birth to the first “CRISPR babies” in November. This type of gene editing is banned in most countries, including China, and Dr. He’s announcement set off a firestorm in both the media and the scientific community.

To help us understand the implications of this type of gene editing, Relevant Radio® contributor Dr. Aaron Kheriaty stopped by A Closer Look™ to discuss the ethical concerns of germ-line gene editing and CRISPR technology.

While CRISPR and other gene editing technology is currently used on children and adult tissue, such as bone marrow or blood cells, to correct certain diseases, what Dr. He did was called germ-line editing, which is still developing and a cause for many ethical concerns.

Dr. Kheriaty explained, “Germ-line gene editing is editing the genes of either an embryo, the very earliest human life in the very earliest stages of its development, or editing the genes of someone’s sperm or egg. The reason germ-line gene editing is much more controversial and much more fraught with moral difficulties is that you’re changing the genes not just of that one particular individual, but of that individual’s offspring, and their offspring, on down the generations indefinitely.”

“In other words, you’re introducing changes into the human gene pool that are going to affect not just one individual, who might have been able to consent to the risks associated with that procedure, but you are altering an individual, in the case of an embryo, who is not able to give consent. And in the case of that person’s future offspring, obviously those individuals would not be able to give consent. … We can’t do things to people without their consent”

Dr. Kheriaty emphasized that informed consent is a mainstay of good research and good clinical practice. And for good reason. In addition to concerns about consent, there is also concern about safety, particularly the safety of future generations who were not able to agree to the risks involved in such an experiment. Dr. Kheriaty said that the questions that should have been asked are, “What if we haven’t perfected this technology? And it’s pretty clear that we haven’t. What if we introduce a mistake, or something that has downstream side effects, or problems that we didn’t anticipate?”

Yet another consideration that Dr. Kheriaty pointed out is that our body’s ability to adapt and protect itself is part of our genetic makeup. And since we don’t yet know all the functions that each gene performs, altering a gene to create immunity from one disease may make that person more vulnerable to another disease.

“Changing genes is always a trade-off,” Dr. Kheriaty explained. “People pointed out in this case that while these children may be less susceptible to acquiring HIV, they may actually be more susceptible to acquiring the West Nile Virus because of this gene alteration. They may also be more susceptible to bad health outcomes if they acquire influenza. So when we alter, change, edit, or tinker with a person’s genes, that have been selected under various evolutionary pressures over many millenia, we’re altering and tinkering with enormously complex systems that we don’t entirely understand. So there is an element of ‘let’s shoot first and ask questions later’ in terms of the approach that was taken by these Chinese scientists.”

So why did Dr. He and his team defy international law and go through with this experiment? Giving his take, Dr. Kheriaty said, “A cynical interpretation, though not an entirely implausible interpretation, is that there was a sort of rush on the part of the scientists to be the first ones out of the gate. The announcement was made just a day or two prior to a large international meeting in Hong Kong, where people were coming together to discuss precisely this issue. And this sort of lobbed a big grenade into the middle of those proceedings.”

“With so much riding on the future of gene editing, with so much money at stake in terms of new companies and start-ups that are utilizing and researching CRISPR technology, it struck me that the timing and the nature of this experiment, in this case, suggested notoriety, having an eye on a future Nobel Prize, this sort of thing. Scientists are not immune from these kinds of considerations. … Being the first one out of the gate will certainly get you a lot of attention.”

Listen to the full conversation with Dr. Aaron Kheriaty on the podcast of A Closer Look.