December 6, 2021

Harvard profs defend ‘rogue scientist’

Dr He has powerful sympathisers

George Q. Daley  

Despite the hullabaloo over He Jiankui’s treatment of two babies, two of Harvard University’s most prominent scientists have defended him.

George Q. Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, told the summit “Just because the first steps into a new technology are missteps, it doesn't mean we shouldn't step back, restart and think about a plausible and responsible pathway for clinical translation.”

He is in favour of moving ahead with germline editing. “I do think it’s time to move forward from the prospects of ethical permissibility to start outlining what an actual pathway to clinical applications would look like.” Apart from curing serious genetic diseases, he pointed out, the survival of the human race might be at stake. “There have even been discussions that we as a species need to maintain the flexibility in the face of future threats to take the control of our own heredity.” 

George Church, one of Harvard’s star researchers, described the criticism heaped on He as “bullying”. In an interview with Science magazine Church said

“The most serious thing I’ve heard is that he didn’t do the paperwork right. He wouldn’t be the first person who got the paperwork wrong. It’s just that the stakes are higher. If it had gone south and someone had been damaged, maybe there would be some point. Like what happened with Jesse Gelsinger [who died in a 1999 gene therapy experiment]. But is this a Jesse Gelsinger or a Louise Brown [the first baby born through in vitro fertilization] event? That’s probably what it boils down to.”

Church refused to describe the experiment as “unethical”. True, he said, there is a global moratorium on human germline editing, “but a moratorium is not a permanent ban forever. It’s a checklist of what you have to do. It really seems like he was checking off the published list [see p. 132] by the National Academy of Sciences and added a few things of his own.”

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