A Chinese scientist last year made history by using CRISPR technology to genetically modify two newborns. Now, the scientific community is struggling with the ethics of human germline editing as yet another woman is pregnant with a gene-edited baby and will be giving birth soon.
“We as a species need to come to terms with this,” Dr. William Hurlbut, a senior research scholar in neurobiology at Stanford Medical School, said Tuesday during CNBC’s Healthy Returns conference in New York. “For the first time in the history of life, we can affect the future of our evolution.”
CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene editing tool that has been used to assist scientists in treating or maybe even curing genetic diseases. The technology, which has been touted as a breakthrough, provides researchers the ability to change organism’s DNA by either adding, removing or changing certain genetic material.
Although CRISPR-Cas9 has been praised for its potential to cure diseases, it has also raised ethical questions among the scientific community in regard to embryonic DNA editing.
Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed in 2018 to have helped in creating the first gene-edited babies, a set of twin girls born with DNA altered by Jiankui. Scientists from around the globe began citing concerns of passing DNA changes down to future generations and harming other genes. Jiankui said he edited the CCR5 gene in the babies in order to protect the children from the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, which the twins’ father had.
“When Lulu and Nana were just a single cell, this surgery removed a doorway through which HIV enters to infect people,” Jiankui said in one of several videos posted online to justify and explain his work.
Despite these concerns, a third baby with an edited CCR5 gene is due to be born this year. He’s research was a “horrible experiment and it established a horrible precedent,” Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Tuesday.
Stanford’s Hurlbut said there are risks to editing DNA, as those traits can then be passed down to future generations. “We want to be very careful, nature is a profound balance and if we intervene in a way that is not profound we can upset things,” Hurlbut said.
Dr. Samarth Kulkarni, CEO of CRISPR Therapeutics also expressed concern, in which he said what Jiankui did was “a bit unfortunate.”
“I think on many levels the science is not there to support germline editing yet, ” Kulkarni said.
He added that the “only silver lining of this unfortunate incident” is it has brought attention to the other advancements scientists are making with gene editing technology. CRISPR Therapeutics announced in February that it treated a patient for sickle cell disease with gene-edited hematopoietic stem cell therapy, meanwhile, it wants to start using the technology to potentially treat cancer patients.
Though the scientific community agrees now is not yet the time for genetic embryonic editing, the CEOs claim the technology has the potential to cure hundreds of genetic disorders in their lifetime. “CRISPR is here to stay…” Kulkarni said. “The technology itself will become a mainstay.”