Play­ing God

China must rein in gene-edit­ing ge­neti­cist

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Business -

If China is se­ri­ous about play­ing a lead­er­ship role in the world, it must take steps to as­sure the world that it will not look the other way as Chi­nese sci­en­tists play God with ge­net­ics.

China has sus­pended the re­search ac­tiv­i­ties of a sci­en­tist who cre­ated ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied hu­mans — twins al­ready born and a preg­nancy now in process.

Which leaves unan­swered the ques­tion of how Chi­nese sci­en­tist He Jiankui was able to carry out his re­search and bring a pair of gene-edited chil­dren into the world with­out the au­thor­i­ties in an au­thor­i­tar­ian na­tion such as China not even aware of it, un­til he an­nounced his break­through in Hong Kong.

The prac­tice is il­le­gal in the United States and many other coun­tries. It’s dan­ger­ous. The risks are not well un­der­stood. Tin­ker­ing with one set of genes could have un­fore­seen con­se­quences. Hu­man ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing holds po­ten­tial for great good but for even greater evil. Al­low­ing it to hap­pen as se­cretly as it did in China is op­po­site of the care­ful and me­thod­i­cal vet­ting that needs to be done be­fore hu­man DNA is ma­nip­u­lated.

Mr. He’s as­ser­tion is that he edited the chil­dren’s genes for a good cause — to save them from pos­si­ble HIV in­fec­tion later in life. The same tech­niques that pro­tect against the HIV in­fec­tion could pre­sum­ably be used in at­tempts to en­hance in­tel­li­gence, beauty or size, or in any num­ber of other ways that serve no ac­cepted med­i­cal or health-re­lated pur­pose.

Mr. He, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the South­ern Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy in Shen­zhen, claimed he used the gene-edit­ing tool CRISPR-cas9 to in­sert or de­ac­ti­vate genes.

CRISPR has been hailed as an in­no­va­tion with tremen­dous po­ten­tial, but many in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity be­lieve the tech­nol­ogy is still ex­per­i­men­tal and not ready for hu­man ap­pli­ca­tion. China is bankrolling ex­pen­sive re­search projects have in a less re­stric­tive reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment than West­ern nations.

Mr. He’s re­search was done with­out the prac­tices, nor­mal in the U.S., of ob­tain­ing in­de­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion and peer-re­view­ing.

The United States must in­sist that China work with sci­en­tists from around the globe. We are talk­ing about the fu­ture of the hu­man race.

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