The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing took place on November 25th, in Hong Kong. It wasn’t exactly a media spectacle- until a young scientist named He Jiankui took the stage. Jiankui announced, in scientific terminology, that he had done something bold, new, and in many circles, unthinkable. He had become the first person to edit the genomes of viable human embryos.
The specific edit Jiankui had performed using CRISPR Cas-9 to induce a mutation called CCR5 Delta-32 in two twin girls, codenamed Lulu and Nana. CCR5 Delta-32 is a mutation that naturally occurs in around 1% of Europeans, which makes it impossible for the HIV virus to invade the carrier’s cells. Jiankui’s goal with this procedure was to render the two girls, whose father was HIV positive, immune to the disease.
It wasn’t more than a few days after the initial presentation before reactions condemning the experiment began to air. The Chinese government called it “abominable”. Stan News and New York Times published articles attacking it in short order as well. The primary reason for the condemnations against Jiankui was the fact that there had been almost nothing in the way of oversight. Most scientists, in China and around the world, were in agreement that CRISPR technology was not ready to use on humans, meaning that Jiankui had, in effect, gone rogue. As a result of this lack of oversight, perhaps unsurprisingly, the experiment did not even achieve the desired results. The edits made in Lulu and Nana were not enough to make them immune to HIV, according to other scientists who looked at his work.
As of February 2019, according to China, Jiankui is under house arrest at a secret and secure location. Questions about the ethics and ramifications of his work have persisted, in scientific circles and in the press. Will the punishment Jiankui is facing be enough to dissuade other rogue scientists from following in his footsteps? When will it be considered acceptable to edit resistance to diseases into human embryo’s?
My opinion is that CRISPR’s time to be used on humans will come, and that editing humans to resists deadly diseases is, fundamentally, a good thing. That said, Jiankui overstepped all ethical boundaries by going over everyone’s heads, and performing a shoddy job that may not achieve the desired effect. He strikes me as having been motivated primarily by ambition, rather than the humanism which has motivated the great biomedical researchers (Francis Crick, Jennifer Doudna, Craig and Dottie Venter). And while it seems that China is using all avenues available to hold him accountable, the fact that he had such an easy time working in secret is worrying, considering how many other ambitious rogue scientists may be out there.