Well, the rumors that scientists in China have been messing around with fully predictable genetic engineering of human embryos, discussed here at On Science Blogs a month ago, turn out to be true. Fully predictable hell has broken out. More will, predictably, follow.
The good news is that, despite a considerable amount of previously reported success with the gene editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 in cell lines and even in living creatures, these early attempts on human embryos ended up a mess. It’s good news because that failure may give us a bit of breathing room to figure out what should be done about genetic tinkering with an embryo that will affect that person-to-be’s descendants. Or, more practically, whether anything can be done, given that these new technologies are (relatively) cheap and simple to use, and portable.
The researchers, at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, took care to short-circuit ethical objections by doing this early work in 86 human embryos fertilized imperfectly during in vitro fertilization, embryos that could not survive and would normally have been thrown out. Their target was the gene for ß-thalassaemia. Mutant versions of the gene are responsible for a range of inherited blood disorders and can be fatal.
The procedure worked properly in only a handful of cases. Most of the time the new genetic material inserted itself in the wrong place in the genome. The process also created mosaics: embryos where the desired change was present in only some of its cells, not in all. It is not known how using embryos that were abnormal to begin with affected the outcome.
Despite this unsettling start, in principle there is no obvious reason why, eventually, normal human embryos cannot be edited successfully, as has been done in monkeys. I wrote about the monkey work here more than a year ago.
The new paper appeared in the Springer journal Protein & Cell and is open-access. Why, you ask, not in Nature or Science, which loooooove hot papers? These top journals do want hot papers, they do, but apparently don’t want them as hot as this one. Both journals turned it down–on, it is said, ethical grounds.
Is this an unethical paper? I’d say no, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. My guess is that the journals just decided they didn’t need the hassles the paper is inviting. The published paper’s metadata shows that Springer took only one day to decide otherwise. On April Fool’s Day, in fact. Try not to read anything into that date.
Protein & Cell‘s Impact Factor can be guessed at by noting that the paper was published April 18 but appears, astonishingly, to have languished unnoticed and unheralded for a few days. Does Springer have a PR department? Or is it just . . . shy?
Rounding up blog posts about the new human gene-editing paper
The paper has generated an extraordinary amount of media attention, much of it repetitive. At Ars Technica, John Timmer provides a straightforward and mostly straight science account of the work described in the new paper and the technical problems it emphasizes. Tia Ghose explains some of the technical difficulties the researchers ran into–and potential solutions–at LiveScience. Ghose also notes rumors that several other labs are at work on human embryo editing.
Critics fall mostly into one of two camps. Some want no genetic work done on human embryos period, especially work that could affect future generations. Others would like to find ways to make preliminary exploratory research on human gene editing acceptable but hold off–for how long is not clear–on any attempts to apply this work to embryos intended to survive. The Chinese work, carried out on crippled embryos that would otherwise have been discarded, seems to me be an example–and, by those criteria, perfectly ethical.
Rob Stein, at Shots, focuses on critical assessments of the work, emphasizing how the failures the Chinese describe demonstrate that human embryo editing is far from any clinical applications. Genome Web summarized several other negative comments.
Razib Khan urges everybody to calm down at Gene Expression, noting that the failures mean that human embryo gene editing is far from being a consumer product. He says the real danger will be something like “a government or society [that] isn’t bound by normal human ethical standards, and begins to basically treat their population like livestock. As is usually the case the major issues looming are not scientific, but have to do with human volition.”
At The Loom, Carl Zimmer’s explainer begins with the new Chinese paper. But the post is really a walk through the history of attempts to fix human disease with genetic engineering, linking to a number of Zimmer’s past pieces for amplification.
Homo sap becomes a GMO
Chris Gyngell’s post at Practical Ethics comes down squarely in favor of human germline editing on grounds that it offers immense potential benefits. People who oppose it Gyngell dismisses as emotional rather than rational.
Gyngell argues that the scientists who have called, respectively, for a germline editing moratorium in Nature and a pause in Science fail to show why “general concerns about this technology warrant such extraordinary disapproval, while the same concerns in other technologies are ignored.” Why, Gyngell wants to know, does germline editing deserve special attention?
Because, Paul Knoepfler responds sternly, germline editing involves “experimentally de novo creating designer babies with gene edits that the resulting genetically modified people could then pass along to future generations forever with unknown consequences.” Knoepfler is a stem-cell researcher and passionate blogger who has come up with his own plan that would permit germline gene editing to go forward as research but stop short of attempting to bring a genetically modified baby into existence.
Wired’s Nick Stockton has collected comments from scientists and ethicists who have been involved in the Nature and Science commentaries calling for human germline editing to stop altogether or at least slow down. These commentaries were discussed here at On Science Blogs last month.
Hank Greely, of Stanford Law School, a co-author of the Science call for a pause in the research, told Stockton he thinks the Chinese researchers have nothing to be ashamed of. But the fact that the work was doable, however imperfectly, “makes it even more urgent to have a societal conversation about how far to go.”
I love the flag-waving self-absorption of Wired’s hed, “America Needs to Figure Out the Ethics of Gene Editing Now,” with its implication that it is this country’s job to make ethical rules on gene editing for the world. It’s going to be hard enough to make rules for the US. Doing human embryo research with government money is against the law here, but there are no restrictions whatever on what companies and other private organizations can do.