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Press Statement: Monstrous Gene Editing Experiment

Chinese researcher He Jiankui of Shenzhen claims to have gene edited two healthy embryos, resulting in the birth of baby girls born this month, Lulu and Nana. He edited a gene to make the babies resistant to HIV. One girl has both copies of the gene modified while the other has only one (making her still susceptible to HIV). 

If true, this experiment is monstrous. The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer. There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals: for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one does contract it.

This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit.

It contravenes decades on ethical consensus and guidelines on the protection of human participants in research.

In many other places in the world, this would be illegal punishable by imprisonment.

Could gene editing ever be ethical? If the science progressed in the future and off target mutations reduced to acceptable and accurately measurable level, it might be reasonable to consider first-in-human trials (with appropriate safeguards and thorough ethics review) in one category of embryos: those with otherwise lethal catastrophic genetic mutations who are certain to die. Gene editing for this group might be life-saving; for these current babies, it is only life-risking.

These healthy babies are being used as genetic guinea pigs. This is genetic Russian Roulette.

Prof Julian Savulescu

Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics

Director Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

University of Oxford

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2 Comment on this post

  1. I am eager to view the link, no doubt published by He Jiankui, that outlines the process of informed consent that was undertaken, and how he or she managed to explain to these embryos the pros and cons of his intervention. If informed consent was not obtained, I hope that the paper is withdrawn

  2. For people like me – someone who holds out hope that germline engineering could one day remedy our current problems of rising inequality – this kind of irresponsible research is especially scary. If something goes wrong, that puts a huge stain on the whole field. This is exactly the sort of cavalier attitude that led to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, two accidents without which our world be much further along in our fight against atmospheric CO2. A couple of idiots really can ruin everything, and I think these scientists really deserve our condemnation. Their field has a potential to bring about huge social benefits, but for that to happen, we need to emphasize safety. At this early stage, one mistake could blow it all up.

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