We may be on the verge of creating genetically modified babies.
Wired reported that in November 2018, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, announced that he had genetically modified one embryo from a pair of twins and then used artificial insemination to place the embryos in the uterus of their natural mother. The scientist’s goal was to make one of the babies have resistance to getting HIV from the biological father who is HIV positive.
Jiankui made the announcement at a convention for genetic studies held in Hong Kong without publishing anything regarding his research. That really broke with scientific standards. Other scientists at the convention were aghast because Jiankui did not follow any of the universal ethical protocols that prohibit gene-manipulation experiments on human beings.
To make matters more complicated, the twin babies have already been born, so there is little that anyone can do about the condition of the children now, except observe them. That is what Jiankui wanted to happen. Now, everyone gets to see if his intervention was successful.
It is not clear what, if anything, Chinese authorities will do about the potentially illegal experimental acts of this scientist. Gene manipulation, gene-splicing, and genetic modification are ongoing at record speeds in China. This came about because the technology to make it easier, called CRISPR, has now been widely disseminated globally. Scientists all over China are using this new, low-cost, genetic-modification tool to experiment on animals of all kinds.
The Chinese government has one of the worst human-rights records in the world, according to a 2018 report from the Human Rights Watch. The value of human life in China is not that high, so using gene modification techniques on humans may not be very bothersome to government officials.
The Washington Post says that this news brings up serious ethical considerations about the rights of any genetically-modified children. Some scientists criticized the experiment on the human twins because there already is a standard medical treatment to successfully block transmission of HIV from a biological father to his offspring. Scientist, Jiankui, debated the ethical challenges very strongly, saying that being able to block HIV by genetic manipulation may be the cure for the disease and this experiment will prove that it works. Who knows where this might lead. Are giant babies next?
Wired UK now reports that in reaction to what Jiankui did, scientists all over the world are now racing to make sure another CRISPR baby is not born. This effort by scientists, to block the use of this technology on humans, is too late. Genetically-modified babies will probably soon be as common as having blue eyes and blond hair, not only in Sweden but in China as well.