STANFORD, Calif. (KTVU) - Some call it a scientific break-through. But others see a recent scientific experiment as the beginning of unethical science. The announcement came last November as some of the best and brightest gathered in Hong Kong. Chinese scientist He Jiankui revealed he’d produced the first gene-edited babies. Twin girls underwent what’s called “germline editing,” with their DNA altered to make them resistant to contracting the HIV virus.
“This kind of gene editing effects not only the patient, but all of the patients future progeny in future generations. And therefore any unintended consequences could affect populations, not just the individual patient,” said Ann Mongoven, an ethicist at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
She says global condemnation has been swift and uniform, because the international community has guidelines in place to prevent human trials of gene editing.
“We don’t know a lot genetics yet. We don’t know what’s going to happen if we change one gene. We’re trying to stop a disease, but maybe there will be unintended consequences that are negatively adaptive for evolution that put people at a disadvantage or actually harm their health,” said Mongoven.
Jiankui did post-doctoral research at Stanford University. Multiple Stanford faculty members say he contacted them about genetically modifying human embryos and implanting them in women. The university has launched an investigation into the actions by those who were contacted.
“We routinely look into concerns that are brought to our attention involving Stanford,” the school explained to Fox 2 via email. “…We have a review under way of the circumstances around Dr. He’s interactions with researchers at the university.”
The Chinese government is also investigating, and last month, found that Dr. Jiankui violated some of that country’s laws, and that he may face a criminal investigation. Experts say the fact that he was able to complete the experiment despite strong opposition globally, may signal the need for greater oversight and education of the scientific community where gene editing is concerned.
“I think it’s raising questions about the regulation of internationals science. The scientific community is trying to handle this by guidelines that are widely agreed upon. Is that sufficient?,” said Mongoven.
The answer may be years off, as action and ability seems to be outpacing the difficult questions it provokes.