Gene editing needs security guarantees.
Some U.S. researchers knew of a Chinese scientist Dr. He Jiankui’s intentions to implant edited embryos but were unable to stop him. Now scientific institutions are trying to devise global safeguards.
Among these scientists was Dr. Matthew Porteus, a genetics researcher at Stanford, who almost year ago, received an out-of-the-blue email from a young Chinese scientist, asking to meet.
A few weeks later, the scientist, He Jiankui, arrived in his office and dropped a bombshell. He said he had approval from a Chinese ethics board to create pregnancies using human embryos that he had genetically edited, a type of experiment that had never been carried out before and is illegal in many countries.
“I spent probably 40 minutes or so telling him in no uncertain terms how wrong that was, how reckless,” said later Dr. Porteus. He did not report Dr. He’s intentions to anyone, because he thought he’d talked him out of it and it wasn’t clear where to report the plans of a chinese scientist…
Almost two months after a Chinese researcher announced that he had created the first genetically edited babies, scientists are trying to devise international standards that would prevent such uncontrollable experiments in the future.
While most researchers agree that major health and science institutions should act quickly, they differ on the best approach.
Scientists fear that genetically edited babies could develop health problems that could be inherited by subsequent generations. They also worry about attempts to alter genes for physical features, intelligence or athletic prowess.
Some scientists want a yearslong moratorium on creating pregnancies with gene-edited human embryos. Others say a moratorium would be too restrictive, or unenforceable. Some think scientific journals should agree not to publish embryo-editing research. Others consider that misguided or ineffective.
But most agree major health and science institutions should act quickly. The World Health Organization is assembling a panel to develop global standards for governments to follow. Leaders of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, along with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have jointly proposed a commission with academies in other countries to develop criteria so scientists can’t seek out convenient locales for conducting dangerous and unethical experimentation. The proposal included establishing an international mechanism that would enable scientists to raise concerns. The World Economic Forum in Davos has scheduled a discussion of the issue.
Photo: Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times
Based on The New York Times