March 1, 2024

Nothing unethical to see here, move along, please

Harvard scientists continue working on human genome editing

While He Jiankui is probably chilling out in a Chinese jail, he is being roasted by scientists and bioethicists around the world. His offence was to alter the human germline deceptively and without the proper paperwork.

But at the same time, Antonio Regalado, of the MIT Technology Review, points out that scientists at Harvard University are steaming ahead with projects which involve modifying the germline.

The dean of Harvard Medical School, George Q. Daly, told the same conference where He unveiled his research, that “this is a transformative scientific technology with the power for great medical use.” 

Regalado also spoke with Werner Neuhausser, of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, who is trying to modify sperm to lessen the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. He was upset by He Jiankui’s rogue experiment, too, but not because it was fundamentally unethical.

“The problem is that it’s going to make things much harder for everyone else following the rules if you jump so far ahead without proper approvals,” says Neuhausser. “That is the main concern. I don’t think the research is controversial, but everyone agrees it should be kept away from patients for now.”

He predicts that the Chinese scientist’s dream will eventually come true. “In the future, people will go to clinics and get their genomes tested, and have the healthiest baby they can have,” he says. “I think the whole field [of IVF] will switch from fertility to disease prophylaxis”—preventing illness. 

Research of this kind is difficult for scientists in the US. Although it is not illegal, government funding for it is blocked. So Neuhausser is thinking of taking his research on embryos to … China, where regulations are (or were) much more relaxed.

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