Despite the intense controversy over the birth last November of the world’s first gene-altered designer babies in China, numerous leading biologists around the world are proceeding with similar, potentially catastrophic experiments.
The crisis has been brought on by the invention of CRISPR Cas9, a revolutionary new technology for editing genes that was hailed four years ago by MIT Technology Reviewas “the biggest biotech discovery of the century.” Using this extraordinarily effective and relatively inexpensive new tool, biologists can now snip out or alter any one of the more than 20,000 genes in the human genome.
As a means of combating disease, CRISPR Cas9 could prove enormously beneficial. Already, researchers have identified several specific genes that could be altered with this technology in ways that might result in effective treatments for hitherto incurable diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Anemia and dementia.
Like all technology, CRISPR Cas9 is also open to grotesque abuse. Evil biologists in the mould of Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi Doctor, might try to use it to create a new master race of supermen for a “Brave New World.”
Most leading biologists discount the danger. They contend that with proper regulations, responsible government authorities can effectively prevent gross misapplications of CRISPR Cas9, while assuring that the technology serves only to improve the health and well being of present and future generations.
Is that true? Despite strict government regulations in China prohibiting the implantation of embryos with altered germlines, He Jiankui and his team at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen seem to have had little difficulty in secretly creating designer babies in his private laboratory.
He avows that in doing so, he was not motivated by any selfish desire for international renown, but acted only with the selfless intent of protecting his embryonic patients from contracting HIV in the womb from their HIV-infected father. To this end, he snipped out the babies’ CCR5 gene, which is linked to the transmission of HIV. He explained: “When Lulu and Nana were just a single cell, this surgery removed a doorway through which HIV enters to infect people.”
Yet, as He well knows, the human genome is so enormously complex and little understood that it is impossible now for anyone to be certain that eliminating the CCR5 gene might not have the unintended effect of depriving the babies and all their descendants of some vital and indispensable, life-protecting functions that CCR5 might also have in addition to facilitating the transmission of HIV.
While He claims that this risk is vanishingly small, most of the world’s leading biologists are not convinced. They have vigorously denounced him for recklessly endangering the lives of his two patients especially inasmuch as there are other proven means of protecting babies from contracting HIV in the womb that carry none of the unavoidable risks entailed by germline editing.
Regardless, some leading researchers are even now clamouring for regulatory approval to create even more designer babies. Evidently, these impetuous scientists regard He as guilty of having only acted somewhat prematurely.
At an international gene-editing conference in Hong Kong held only days after the sensational publication of He’s outlawed experiment in altering the human germline, George Daley, dean of the Harvard Medical School, stated: “The fact that it is possible that the first instance of human germline editing came forward as a misstep should in no way lead us to stick our heads in the sand. It’s time to … start outlining what an actual pathway for clinical translation would be.”
Meanwhile, Werner Neuhausser, an IVF expert and colleague of Daley’s at the Harvard Medical School, has announced plans to begin research on editing the germline of babies to reduce the risk of contracting Alzheimer’s Disease. Neuhausser predicts: “In the future, people will go to clinics and get their genomes tested, and have the healthiest baby they can have.”
What, though, about all the embryonic human beings that are less than the healthiest? The implication is clear: most will be deliberately killed.
This is the nub of the crisis: While the ethical use of CRISPR Cas9 could yield gigantic benefits for human health and well being, the unscrupulous application of this same technology for germline editing could fatally undermine respect for the sanctity of human life and drastically increase the mass slaughter of nascent human beings when the entire Western world is already threatened by population decline and civilizational extinction.