April 12, 2024

Are Western scientists crossing their fingers when they damn He Jiankui?

Two prominent genetic-engineering sceptics say Yes

The rending of garments by horrified scientists after Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had altered the germline of two babies was heard around the world. But was the outrage sincere? An article in Nature Biotechnology by two prominent genetic engineering sceptics suggests that it was not.

Donna Dickenson, of the University of London, and Marcy Darnovsky, of the Center for Genetics and Society, in Berkeley, California, point out that “the words and actions of key US and UK scientists” encouraged He to proceed. In particular, they point an incriminating finger at last year’s report on human germline editing from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, in the UK.

This widely publicised and influential document argued strongly that there were no “absolute ethical objections” to germline editing. And it actually contended that it was morally imperative to strive for legalisation (report, section 5.2). Dickenson and Darnovsky slam Nuffield for contributing to  “an increasingly permissive climate among elite scientists that may well have emboldened He”.

In a blistering analysis, they point out that the report blithely skated over the issue of risk to the child and never considers the welfare of the mother. No clinical trials would be needed, just follow-up studies – even though it is impossible to ensure compliance.  

Furthermore, they remind readers, “Germline gene editing is not approved
under international law; rather, it is
strongly discouraged or prohibited under
the UNESCO Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights and the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine”.

In all of its reports Nuffield stresses the need for public consultation in decision-making. But Dickenson and Darnovsky are scathing about its commitment to consultation:

a genuine debate will require proponents of heritable gene editing to refrain from labeling those who disagree with them as scientific know-nothings who are simply fearful of dystopias and ‘designer babies’. This rhetorical move serves only to disqualify large segments of the public that proponents say they wish to engage.

The authors conclude: “the salient question
at the heart of the current debate is not the conditions under which heritable genome editing should proceed, but whether it should proceed at all.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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