A number of media have reported the news: Chinese scientists produce genetically edited babies for the first time (see HERE and HERE. According to He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist responsible, his team has managed to obtain the first babies genetically modified in the embryonic stage. The case involves twin girls, Lulu and Nana, obtained using in vitro fertilization (IVF), whose genome was edited after fertilization using the gene-editing tool CRISPR. The aim was to make the girls resistant to AIDS, as their father is HIV positive.
So far, the case has not been published as a scientific article in any journal, but the Chinese geneticist has made the announcement via a video on YouTube (see video below). Nevertheless, criticism by the scientific community has not been long in coming, with numerous statements by high-profile scientists and ethicists describing the developments as premature, irresponsible and unethical, at the very least.
Difference between somatic gene editing and germline gene editing
Certainly, from an ethical and scientific point of view, the birth of these children has made a profound impact, since it would be the first time that germline gene editing (in gametes or early embryos) resulted in the birth of human beings. At this point, we should mention the difference between somatic gene editing and germline gene editing.
1. In the first, the genome is modified in individuals who have already reached a certain degree of development, normally already born, although it can also be done in fetuses in the womb. This will prevent the genetic modifications from being transmissible to offspring, or the occurrence of genetic aberrations that truncate or severely affect the development of the organism.
2. Germline gene editing, in contrast, means that the changes made will pass from generation to generation, and involves serious safety risks, as the action of CRISPR is still not completely well controlled (see HERE and our knowledge of the genome is limited (see HERE). Likewise, it opens the door to the production of so-called “designer babies”, in which the modifications would not be made to cure a disease, but to obtain various “enhancements” in the baby. The ethical implications of this second possibility are, therefore, extremely serious (see HERE). It is for this reason that Jiankui’s experiments have been so heavily criticized. Furthermore, the case of the twins would be situated within the framework of enhancement, because they did not have the disease, so that what was done was not to cure them, but to endow them with a preventive genetic trait, which poses additional ethical problems.
Finally, it should be noted that gene editing in human beings has been occurring for more than three years, ever since April 2015 when scientists (also Chinese) announced that they had edited the genome of non-viable human embryos (see HERE). Although these experiments were also widely questioned initially, other countries soon joined this research (such as England and the United States, and not just using non-viable embryos, but also healthy, perfectly viable embryos which are intentionally destroyed a few days after editing their genome. Some are embryos left over from IVF treatments, while others are produced expressly as research subjects. Therefore, what happened in China was to be expected, as it constitutes the next logical step, although it is certainly precipitous from a medical point of view.
Bioethical and moral statement
In our opinion, the use and destruction of human embryos in research is morally unacceptable (see the Biological status of the human embryo and the anthropological status HERE. Whether germline gene editing might one day be safe based on animal studies alone is somewhat uncertain, but this does not justify the sacrifice of human lives for this purpose, especially taking into account that germline gene editing does not respond to the medical needs of existing patients, but to the desire of parents to conceive children that are, at least, perfectly healthy. Although this desire is legitimate, the means do not justify the end but must be justified in themselves.
In conclusion, the required safety evidence to justify the conducting of these experiments is lacking. Notwithstanding, technical advances in this field should not be built on experimentation with human embryos, but in animal models, even if there are no guarantees that a sufficient degree of safety can be achieved in the future. Furthermore, apart from safety issues, there is the problem of the distinction between therapy and enhancement, paving the way for the production of designer babies. Finally, it is a practice that, at the present time, is inevitably associated with IVF.
The implementation of interventions on the human embryonic genome that involve proposals for enhancement, design or selection form the basis for the development of trans- and post-humanist strategies, which constitute, in our opinion, the greatest attack on the human person in this 21st century.