A recent article published by Grace Tsoi highlights the ongoing controversy regarding CRISPR, a new technology capable of editing DNA sequences, and thus genomes. Among those experimenting with CRISPR is Chinese researcher He Jiankui, notoriously nicknamed “China’s Dr. Frankenstein.” Many are critical of He Jiankui, as they deem his work with CRISPR — such as producing the world’s first gene-edited babies — inhumane and unethical. He Jiankui, however, argues that CRISPR has the potential to help “…millions of families with inherited diseases or exposure to infectious disease.”
Pictured above is He Jiankui, researcher and associate professor of the Southern University of Science and Technology’s Biology Department.
In proving CRISPR’s potential, He Jiankui referenced an experiment in which he was able to produce two healthy twin girls by manipulating their genes, specifically making them resistant to HIV. He Jiankui had ultimate success with CRISPR technology, as the twins produced were not HIV positive, unlike their biological father. To learn more about the threat of HIV during contraception, click here. While He Jiankui expressed pride to his audience, stating, “For this specific case, I feel proud actually. I feel proudest because Mark [father of the twins] thought he had lost hope for life,” some audience members did not feel the excitement. Rather, his animated claims were met with intense criticism.
The Risks and Suspicions:
Given CRISPR’s potential, why are people so critical? Is CRISPR’s label “gene scissors” accurate or oversimplified? Regardless of these answers, it is undeniable that utilizing CRISPR for human embryos is a much more complex process. As Kenneth Lee, a biomedical sciences professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explains it, using CRISPR in human embryos is “highly risky,” and could potentially mutate other genes in the process. As a result, the embryo might not survive, or could acquire deformities and/or other genetic disorders. Adding another element to the audience’s suspicion of He Jiankui’s experiment was the secrecy surrounding it, as he failed to answer why he initially hid it from Chinese officials. Failing to consider the opinions of these aforementioned officials has left many questioning the genuine ethics of He Jiankui’s experiment. In defending his work, He Jiankui emphasized that every individual involved consented to his experiment and were well-educated on the study itself. However, the consent form uploaded to his website, explicitly states that He Jiankui would not be held responsible for any unintended gene mutation. Moreover, the University where he conducted his experiment appeared unaware of his lab work, thus rendering an investigation of He Jiankui’s activities. Although China is a more “relaxed” country regarding its gene editing rules (gene editing is banned in the U.S., as well as many other countries), He Jiankui has faced condemnation from many Chinese scientists. Despite this, he plans to expand his studies, focusing next on another gene-edited pregnancy — yet another controversial experiment that will prove to either have potential or deep ramifications.
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