Some say a global moratorium on germline gene editing is called for In the wake of He Jiankui's controversial study. LUISMMOLINA/ISTOCKPHOTO

Topics: Biology, Ethics, Existentialism, Star Trek

"Superior ability breeds superior ambition."
– Spock, 2267 ("Space Seed") Source: The Eugenics Wars (Memory Alpha)

The Eugenics Wars (or the Great Wars) were a series of conflicts fought on Earth between 1992 and 1996. The result of a scientific attempt to improve the Human race through selective breeding and genetic engineering, the wars devastated parts of Earth, by some estimates officially causing some thirty million deaths, and nearly plunging the planet into a new Dark Age. (TOS: "Space Seed"; ENT: "Borderland")

*****

When a researcher in China startled the world earlier this week with the revelation that he had created the first gene-edited babies, only one prominent scientist quickly spoke out in his defense: geneticist George Church, whose Harvard University lab played a pioneering role in developing CRISPR, the genome editor used to engineer embryonic cells in the hugely controversial experiment. Church has reservations about the actions of He Jiankui, the scientist in Shenzhen, China, who led the work.

The fiercely debated experiment, described by He at a meeting in Hong Kong, China, today, used CRISPR to try to make the babies resistant to HIV by crippling a receptor, CCR5, that the virus uses to infect white blood cells. But Church also thinks there’s a frenzy of criticism surrounding He that exaggerates the severity of what one critic gingerly called his “missteps” but another called “monstrous.” [1]

*****

HONG KONG, CHINA--An international conference on human gene editing dominated by news of the birth of the world's first genetically engineered babies today concluded with a statement from the organizers that harshly condemned the controversial study. But it did not call for a global moratorium on similar studies, as some scientists had hoped; instead it called for a "translational pathway" that might eventually bring the ethically fraught technology to patients in a responsible way.

The hotly debated study, which apparently resulted in twin baby girls whose genomes were altered in a way that could affect their offspring, came to light on the eve of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing here. The first summit, held in Washington, D.C. in December 2015, concluded with a statement that specifically said that unless and until safety, efficacy, and ethical and regulatory issues are resolved, "it would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing," a reference to genetic modifications that can be passed on to the next generation.

But that is exactly what Chinese researcher He Jiankui did, crippling a gene known as CCR5 in hopes of making the babies as well as their offspring resistant to HIV infection. After the news appeared in the media, He appeared at a special session at the summit yesterday to defend his work and answer questions from the stunned audience. (He, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in nearby Shenzhen, withdrew from a second session on embryo editing on Thursday afternoon.) [2]

1. ‘I feel an obligation to be balanced.’ Noted biologist comes to def..., Jon Cohen, Science Magazine

2. Organizers of gene editing meeting blast Chinese study but call for..., Dennis Normile, Science Magazine

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