Humankind was reluctantly drawn into a new era this week.
In a video released on YouTube, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, announced to the world that he had successfully used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool to alter the DNA of two pre-natal embryos, essentially the the world's first genetically modified humans.
The news that took place on the eve of a high-level scientific meeting in Hong Kong on the processing of human genes shocked the scientific community. "I see it as one of those moments that occurs every few decades," said William Hurlbut, senior research scholar at the Department of Neurobiology at Stanford University Medical Center. "Where someone does something that changes the landscape so dramatically that the world never becomes the same again."
But the scientist who accomplished this historic achievement was neither celebrated nor showered with praise. In fact, his whereabouts are currently unknown. He renounced early on the event in which he presented his research when he was looking for an investigation of this work. The Chinese authorities have launched an "immediate investigation" against him, asking those involved in the project to cease their activities.
The processing of DNA from human embryos that has been delivered has never happened. With good reason, scientists say. The technology is still in its infancy and could lead to a variety of unknown genetic complications in the course of life.
The scientists have understood that the implantation of such an embryo is a limit that should not be exceeded until the risks are reduced or eliminated. "Nobody expected anyone to do this experiment on a human embryo," said Feng Zhang, one of the inventors of the gene editing technology CRISPR and member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, to CNN. "The scientific community did not really know what was going on."
He, a professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said he was "proud" of his work, which led to two allegedly healthy people. Twins born of embryos changed to resist them To make HIV. However, he was condemned by his colleagues, and the experiment was described as "tremendous," "immoral," and "a major blow" to the reputation of Chinese biomedical research.
Tinker's ability to work with life-changing technologies The regulators and allegedly even the university where he carried out the experiment raised serious ethical questions about the transparency of gene processing and the demand for triggered a globally binding code of conduct.
The case is also facing China, a leader in genome processing and biotechnology, which has historically had a reputation for bypassing ethical issues in favor of innovation.
However, deeper questions are asked as to whether it is now inevitable that this technology will be used in the future.
"Never before has man had power over our own biology," said Hurlbut. "We are now in the era of germline genetic engineering."
"A wake-up call"
Ultimately, genomic processing shows great promise in one day for the treatment of diseases that are currently untreatable, such as sickle cell disease or Cysts Fibrosis Scientists at the Second International Human Genome Summit on which he appeared on Wednesday said overwhelmingly that science must be made as effective and safe as possible ̵
Germline gene editing refers to genetic changes in each cell that are passed on to future generations. This differs from the processing of genes for somatic (body) cells, whereby only existing cells are controlled and the changes made are not passed on to future offspring.
Apart from ethical concerns, the scientists said the gene called "CCR5 " is crucial for the human immune system, and when removed, increases the risk of susceptibility to other diseases such as the West Nile virus and influenza , Other critics pointed out that the procedure is not medically necessary because there are other treatments for HIV.
Alterations to an embryo could also have unknown consequences that can be transmitted to future generations.
It was obvious He had not fully considered the potential long-term social impact on the twin girls. When a spectator at the summit asked if he had thought about how the girls see themselves and how they are treated by society, he replied, "I do not know how to answer that question."
Scientists at The Summit pointed out that his approach to the study was flawed from start to finish, in particular the way he had obtained parental consent – a process that spanned just two sessions in total three hours and without an independent third party stretched out to properly explain the risks and benefits.
His research has led scientists to call for greater transparency and a form of global governance in this area.
"There has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of the lack of transparency," said conference chairman and Nobel laureate David Baltimore on Wednesday.
"A Gold Rush on New Types of Knowledge"
The announcement of the world is imminent The genetically modified babies came from China not surprisingly.
Chinese scientists have made many innovations in the genome world, including the first CRISPR-edited monkeys, the first use of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool And the first reported use of gene editing technology to modify non-viable human embryos.
China has also pumped huge amounts of government funds into gene-editing technology to help leading Chinese scientists living abroad, as well as The country attracted foreigners who claimed the land as fertile ground for this type of research
"I think right now that China is much more motivated, motivating its scientists to move faster and be more courageous," said Victor J. Dzau, president of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Medicine the USA.
Last year, China issued a record 1.76 trillion yuan ($ 254 billion) in research and development, and the country is catching up with the US An investment in the same area that triggers a genetic arms race has been made by Dr. Carl June, a specialist in immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania, referred to as "Sputnik 2.0".
And Chinese regulators seem to be more open to new technology than their US counterparts. At the end of February 2018, there were nine registered clinical trials testing CRISPR-treated cells for the treatment of various cancers and HIV infections in China, according to Goldman Sachs' April analysis. Compared to the US in the US after the Food and Drug Administration discontinued its first US Human CRISPR study in October.
"It is clear that this is the new frontier," said Hervé Chneiweiss of the French Center National de la Recherche Scientifique. "It's clearly the gold rush of any new knowledge that could be translated into new treatments."
Many of these treatments exist in a legal gray area. Currently each country has its own rules and regulations for the processing of genes. In China, there are several loosely worded regulations that restrict experimental science, including regulations for embryo research. A 2003 directive in China's Ministry of Health's in vitro clinics banned "clinical experiments" that "violated ethical or moral principles."
"The problem is that no sanctions are imposed" if the guidelines are violated, Renzong Qiu said of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
To show the world that China adheres to ethical standards, Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping said on Thursday that he had "carelessly violated Chinese law and violated the ethics of science." [BoththehospitalmentionedinHe'sethicalapprovaldocumentsandtheuniversitywithwhichheisaffiliateddenyinvolvementintheproceedingsandinajointstatementonMondaymorethan120Chinesescientistscondemnedtheresearchandsaid"Experimentingdirectlyonhumansisnothingbutcrazy"
" There is a misunderstanding that advances in research must necessarily be more flexible in terms of regulation, "said David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical Biology at Harvard University, pioneering the enhancement of CRISPR versio "I warn that people are taking away the recent news that China is less vigilant or less concerned about ethical violations than other countries."
In the short term, the biggest risk of abuse may not be as direct to people damage, but the deterrent effect on legitimate research, governments and regulators should push for greater restrictions.