WHO races to set ethical rules for gene editing before it’s too...

WHO races to set ethical rules for gene editing before it’s too late

By Luke Vargas   
Dr. He Jiankui informs the world about a first of its kind gene surgery on single-cell embryos. November 25, 2018. Courtesy: The He Lab
Dr. He Jiankui informs the world about a first-of-its-kind gene surgery on single-cell embryos, on Nov. 25. (Courtesy: The He Lab)

The allure of cutting-edge gene editing 'surgery' is strong, but serious medical, legal and ethical dangers loom.

UNITED NATIONS – The World Health Organization (WHO) is asking ethicists to draft guidelines for human gene editing, weeks after a Chinese scientist stunned the world by announcing he’d performed a “genetic surgery” on a pair of embryos.

In a video message, Dr. He Jiankui described the first ever gene-edited babies as “healthy” and defended his actions, which allowed an HIV-positive father to bear children seemingly free of the virus.

“I can’t think of a gift more beautiful and wholesome for the society than giving another a chance to start a loving family.”

That announcement shocked the medical community, given that gene editing science is so new that the lifetime impacts of genetic surgery performed on a human embryos remain unknown.

“If you change a gene in an embryo, that gene might have different expressions in different places, and while you want it to do something, in this case in the immune system, it can also do things in the brain, in the liver and the bones, and cause harm to the individual.”

Dr. Daniel Sulmasy is a medical ethicist at Georgetown University.

“Second, when you do it in an embryo, it gets passed on, because it becomes part of the germline that goes into making sperm and eggs and therefore whatever happens gets passed on. For those reasons, no one has thought that it is morally appropriate to do this in human beings before we figure out how to do it safely.”

While the temptation to be a medical pioneer is a strong impulse, Sulmasy says scientists can’t do anything they want, lest they put patients or fellow scientists at risk. That’s why he’s glad the WHO is setting rules now for a powerful technology likely to become more alluring with each passing year.

“Science is now global, so a patchwork of different countries having different kinds of regulations is never going to be sufficient to regulate modern science.”

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