A Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, has allegedly created the first gene edited twin babies (born this past month) using the fairly new technology: CRISPR-Cas9. If reports are true, he has brought science a giant leap closer to “designer babies.”
Creepy CRISPR’s History
CRISPR-Cas9, commonly known as “CRISPR,” was largely created in 2012 by Jennifer Doudna, a University of California-Berkeley scientist, and Emmanuelle Charpentier. This technology makes gene editing much easier with greater precision. The changes made are also passed on through many generations of the cells.
CRISPR is currently being used in adult cells as well as embryos. Previously, all human experimentation with this technology used donated embryos not “designated” for pregnancy. Sadly, during these experiments, numerous human embryos were destroyed until Jiankui eventually implanted a few into their mothers.
Jiankui’s initial objective in using CRISPR was to find a way to give HIV-positive fathers a chance to have babies resistant to HIV. He thought this was important, at least partially because of the stigma associated with people with HIV in China. But other scientists have pointed out that using CRISPR for such purposes was wholly unnecessary and reckless, as there are many other ways to protect against HIV, and CRISPR remains experimental.
With respect to potential problems with CRISPR, studies suggest that the gene editing technique creates “off-target DNA damage” much more frequently than once thought. Two studies have also shown that this technology may increase cancer risk. Since CRISPR is also still relatively new, other side effects will likely be discovered with time.
As to ethics of using this new tech on humans, Jiankui has posted a video in which he specifically discusses gene-edited “designer babies.” He says that is an unethical use of CRISPR and is not what he is using it for. In yet another video, he attempts to devise moral boundaries for CRISPR with “five principles.” Curiously, his recent use of CRISPR squarely violates these principles.
For example, Jiankui’s second principle only allows CRISPR gene editing “when the risks of the procedure are outweighed by a serious medical need.” Today, HIV-positive fathers are already at low risk to pass on the virus to their babies. Moreover, other methods such as “sperm washing” can prevent the father from passing HIV onto his child. Finally, Jiankui’s last principle decrees that “[e]veryone deserves freedom from genetic disease.” Of course, HIV is not a genetic disease; it’s viral, not hereditary. For Jiankui to equate HIV with a genetic disease is troubling.
Nevertheless, He Jiankui’s research has had one benefit: it has accelerated the question of whether and/or how this technology should be used in the future. Many scientists (including Jennifer Doudna) have warned that Jiankui’s research was irresponsible, even atrocious. This mirrored the scientific community’s consensus as early as 2015 that genetic tampering with human embryos intended for pregnancy should never occur without far more research.
Not 100% Bad
On the brighter side, there’s hope that CRISPR can be used in humans to treat genetic diseases “such as sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and chronic conditions such as Type 2 diabetes or Alzheimer’s.” It may even be used to eliminate HIV in adult cells. It is also being used in agriculture, and there are potentially thousands of other ways it may be used.
But who should be the arbiter as to how CRISPR ought be employed in the future? Should it be the scientific community? Probably not. As we have already seen in the case of Jiankui, the scientific community is pretty much unable to guide itself on how to use this technology. So do we leave it to lawmakers and the courts to decide CRISPR’s fate? As we can readily see from legalized abortion and assisted suicide, the Supreme Court does not always rule in a way that promotes life. In reality, neither science nor politics may be competent to determine the ethics of this technology.
We are already seeing how CRISPR is being used for ethically questionable projects. In China they are using the technology to enable two female mice (or two male mice) to create offspring. A leader in biohacking, Dr. Josiah Zayner, has created a website exclusively for the purpose of teaching others and selling inexpensive DIY kits on how to use CRISPR at home. He believes that “consumer genetic design” will be a big part of the future of this technology.
CRISPR Scientist “Disappeared”
Frightening stuff, even for the godless communists. In fact, on December 3rd, the official Chinese press reported that Jiankui “disappeared.” This was just a day after he apparently had been placed under house arrest for his troubling work.
But whatever the immediate outcome of Jiankui’s Frankenstein-like experiments, there seems to be little question that Pandora’s box has been opened. Eventually, designer babies will be ubiquitous.
And a new caste system will arise: super, genetically modified humans versus the rest of us. Like the Tower of Babel, the Creator’s intervention is the only wildcard; man, left to his own devices, will never stop playing god.