In a video released on YouTube, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced to the world that he had successfully used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool to modify the DNA of two pre-birth embryos, essentially the created the first genetically modified humans in the world.
The news that took place on the eve of a high-profile scientific meeting in Hong Kong on the processing of human genes shocked the scientific community. "I see it as one of those moments that happen every few decades," said William Hurlbut, a 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 will never be like that again."
Editing the DNA of human embryos to be delivered later has never been done before. With good reason, scientists say. The technology is still in its infancy and could lead to a variety of unknown genetic complications later in life.
Scientists have come to realize 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."
The fact that he was able to craft life-altering technologies from the eyes of the regulators and allegedly the university where he conducted the experiment raised serious ethical questions about the transparency of gene manipulation and triggered calls for a globally binding code of conduct.
The case also revisits China, a leader in genome editing and biotechnology, which has historically had a reputation for questioning ethical issues in favor of innovation.
However, deeper questions are asked as to whether this is the case. It is now inevitable that this technology will be used in the future.
"Humans have never had the power over our biology," said Hurlbut. "We are now in the era of germline gene technology."
"A wake up call"
Germline gene editing refers to genetic changes in every 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 The scientists expressed concern that the gene "excised gene" CCR5 is of crucial importance for the human immune system, and the removal of this gene increases the risk of susceptibility to other diseases such as West Nile virus and influenza. Other critics pointed out that the procedure is not medically necessary because there are other treatments for HIV.
Changes to an embryo could also have unknown consequences that could be passed on to future generations.
It was obvious that he had not fully considered the potential long-term social impact on the twin girls. When a spectator at the summit asked if he was thinking about how the girls would see themselves and how they were treated by society, he replied, "I do not know how to answer that question."
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 only took two sessions, a total of three hours lasted and without an independent third party partners explain the risks and benefits properly.
His research has led scientists to call for greater transparency and a form of global governance in this area.
"The scientific community has failed to self-regulate for lack of transparency," said conference chairman and Nobel laureate David Baltimore on Wednesday.
"A Gold Rush on New Knowledge"
That the announcement of the world's first genetically-engineered babies came out of China may not be surprising.
China has also pumped huge amounts of government funds into gene-editing technology to attract leading Chinese scientists living abroad, as well as foreigners who view the country as fertile ground for this type of research. 19659005] Chinese scientists use human gene editing techniques for the first time "data-src-mini =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/160427132241-crispr-cas9-explainer-natpkg-00010203-small-169 .jpg "data-src-xsmall =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/160427132241-crispr-cas9-explainer-natpkg-00010203-medium-plus-169.jpg "data-src-small = "http://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/160427132241-crispr-cas9-explainer-natpkg-00010203-large-169.jpg" data-src-medium = "// cdn.cnn.com/ cnnnext / dam / assets / 160427132241-crispr-cas9-explainer-natpkg-00010203-exlarge-169.jpg "data-src-large =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/160427132241-crispr-cas9 -explainer-natpkg-00010203-super-169.jpg "data-src-full16x9 =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/160427132241-crispr-cas9-explainer-natpkg-00010203-full-169. jpg "data-src-mini1x1 =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/160427132241-crispr-cas9-explainer-natpkg-00010203-small-11.jpg "data-demand-load =" not loaded "data-eq-pts =" mini: 0, xsmall: 221, small: 308, med ium: 461, large: 781 "src =" data: image / gif; base64, R0lGODlhEAAJEAAAAAP ///////wAAACH5BAEAAAIALAAAAAQAAkAAAlIlI + py + 0Po5yUFQA7 "/>