Reckless and Unethical Experimentation


The news that a Chinese researcher had edited genes in two human embryos and then implanted them in a woman sent shockwaves throughout the scientific community.

As well it should.

The researcher, He Jiankui, took it upon himself to pursue a line of experimentation that governments, religious communities and scientists around the world consider a monumental risk to humanity and a line that should not be crossed.

“He’s toying with human health,” said John Brehany, director of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, who called He’s action “a train wreck of a thing to do.”

The researcher, who used the rapidly advancing gene editing technique known as CRISPR, claimed that twin girls were born after he disabled a gene called CCR-5 that allows the AIDS-causing HIV-virus to enter a cell.

The father of the girls is HIV-positive, but it is not clear whether either of the girls carried the virus. Many scientists have pointed out that there are many other ways to prevent HIV from reproducing in newborn infants.

There are many reasons that gene editing is an exciting frontier in treating human adults and children. Such therapies could target specific genes that cause diseases, including cancer, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis and various blood disorders.

Those treatments, however, would alter only the disease-causing gene, which would not be passed on to future children.

Editing an embryo changes its germline (its sperm- or egg-producing cells), meaning the changes would permanently alter the DNA to enter the overall gene pool.

It’s a risk the world is not ready to take.

Governments around the world recognize this, and many, including the United States, ban experimenting on human embryos. Others have strict regulations to manage it, with the support of scientists. After He announced his result (although he did not release any peer-reviewed papers to back it up), China said the work he did was illegal there.

The Catholic Church’s position is spelled out in the 2008 Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document “Instruction ‘Dignitas Personae’ (‘The Dignity of a Person’): On Certain Bioethical Questions.” The dignity of a person, the document says, “must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death. This fundamental principle expresses a great ‘yes’ to human life and must be at the center of ethical reflection on biomedical research.”

Professor He consulted at length with at least two leading academics familiar with and respectful of Catholic teaching, Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University, a member of the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics in the early 2000s, and his son, biomedical historian J. Benjamin Hurlbut of Arizona State University. The Chinese researcher apparently did not heed the Catholic viewpoint the American scholars outlined for him along with other cautions.

William Hurlbut, quoted in the science news site STAT, said he told He that “if the science does not progress in concert with a general understanding of it and acceptance of it by the public, it will create discord and distrust.”

That it has.

No one can put the genie of He’s reckless and unethical experimentation back in the bottle. But the world must be even more vigilant as we move ahead in scientific discovery, with ethics playing an even greater role.