Last fall, Chinese biophysicist He Jianku shocked the world when he announced the successful birth of twins with edited genomes. What followed was a large scale condemnation of the project from the scientific community regarding the lack of any scientific review and consideration for the ethical ramifications.
The “CRISPR Baby Scientist” claimed to disable a specific gene using CRISPR technology to ensure that the twins would not become infected with HIV during their lives.
There are concerns that in disabling the gene, He inadvertently opened the door for other mutations that could cause health problems.
Although the end goal is seemingly admirable, the lack of safeguards and disregard safety procedures has caused an uproar.
The question is now that Pandora’s box has been opened, how can the scientific community proceed with CRISPR research in a safe, ethical, and methodical way?
Caplan argues that the latest controversy highlights the need for established and rigorous standards for such research dealing with genomes and germline gene therapy.
“A deep understanding of the mechanisms and potential side-effects of embryo editing is an absolute pre-requisite to any further discussion of its implementation,” Caplan wrote. “At present, human embryonic editing, particularly in regard to how DNA is repaired, following an induced break, is poorly understood.”
It’s important to note moratoriums on embryo gene editing were in place before He conducted his experiment.
Caplan recommends that an oversight organization including review boards and ethics committees be formed specifically to enforce and regulate future CRISPR research.
This organization could ensure that no studies involving improperly and unethical practices are published, and that participants are properly informed before consenting to any experiments.
“It is not sufficient to establish that germline research ought to be temporarily halted or cautiously proceed despite ethical lapses,” said Caplan. “Regulation and penalties need sufficient bite to assure the public that renegade science has no future in designing our descendants.”