the scientific and ethical disaster that is the chinese crispr scandal
Among the many, many scandals we’ve had this year, perhaps one of the most disproportionately undercovered is He Jiankui’s experiment in modifying viable embryo genomes to be more resistant to HIV, then implanting those embyos to be be carried to term. On the surface, it seems that all He did was take the next step with existing and proven gene editing technology and make sure two children couldn’t get a virus that afflicts their father by shutting off a gene known as CCR5. Since HIV uses receptors built with this gene’s instructions, people with mutations in which this gene is muted are resistant to this virus, and hypothetically, so would the two girls born to the couple who participated in He’s experiment.
Now, one of the immediate red flags raised by pundits is that He was engaging in creating designer babies and this scandal allowed them to dust off their dire warnings of mad scientists creating a crypto-feudal, if not outright fascist, genetic social hierarchy. A steady stream of articles warning us about how close we are to modifying human genomes on a routine basis or our use of genetic screening to flag problems during early pregnancy often meant more for clicks than scientific analysis doesn’t help either, continuously raising the specter of something that might sound a lot like eugenics.
Fortunately for us, actually trying to edit the human genome to arbitrary perfection simply won’t work because that flies in the face of biology and the basics of evolution. We’ve tried to do this more than once and every time the results have been extremely disappointing for eugenicists because nature refuses to bend to their arbitrary standards of genetic perfection. While natural selection isn’t random and manifests itself in fairly predictable ways, the exact mechanisms of mutation and adaptation are. This is why the most prominent features of human evolution over the last 10,000 years deal with handling new diseases and more varied diets rather than height, eye color, athletic ability, or higher scores on fairly arbitrary and often poorly conceived and administered tests.
so, what exactly did he jiankui do wrong?
If He isn’t trying to usher a new generation of superhumans and couldn’t even if he really tried, what exactly is wrong with his experiment? Well, according to experts, his work was sloppy and violated basic ethical rules for this sort of research, and there’s no evidence his edits would actually create two humans highly resistant to HIV. There are also very serious questions about whether their parents understood what was happening and were able to knowledgeably consent, as well as the long term effects of gene editing on a viable human embryo carried to term.
Likewise, the technology he used, CRISRP, may actually not work for most humans without significant modifications, and scientists can’t guarantee that his work didn’t create a cascade of potential genetic errors since it was so “amateurish” and rushed. In other words, He didn’t just take the next step in applying existing, proven technology to in-vitro fertilization. Instead, he did the equivalent of taking a working scale model of an airplane, built a commercial airliner based on its blueprints, and filled it with people for its first test flight, people who probably didn’t know or understand that the plane is very likely to crash when trying to take off.
Popular science articles often paint research as more definitive and further along than it is, giving readers a very skewed idea of what we know and can do. This is why scientists and doctors have rigorous protocols and strict rules against such unsafe, far-reaching experiments. But He simply disregarded them along with repeated warnings about ignoring these safeguards to do what he wanted anyway until Chinese authorities stepped in and halted his research in the aftermath. Now, experts are concerned that someone else could take unproven gene editing technology even farther.
what’s the risk and why does this matter?
Ultimately, there’s a very real chance that scientists overextending existing knowledge on live human beings and their children will cause serious damage, if not kill someone. This isn’t a hypothetical. This has happened before multiple times. It can also be interpreted as yet another manifestation of a scientific culture that values novelty and volume over quality and replication, a culture in which it keeps getting harder to ensure the reported findings are sound, not just cherry picked or p-hacked statistical anomalies. And slow, steady, thorough replication is exactly what’s necessary in the highly regulated and high risk world of experimental medicine.
To make it big as a scientist, you don’t just have to be good, you have to be amazing and groundbreaking, and bring in immense grants from corporate donors and governments. What better way to make a name for yourself and get mountains of cash than engineering children immune to HIV? That may not have been He’s motivation, but every single incentive in today’s world of research and development would be set up to shower him with money and attention for taking a huge risk and achieving a massive, well publicized breakthrough.
The fact that he began working on a slick PR tour before his work has been published and peer reviewed, and that he appears to have steamrolled over more cautious researchers with whom he consulted indicates that He was very much aware of this. Likewise there are reports that his experiment was funded in part by his university, hinting at the possibility that his work was very much supported until he pushed too far and the consequences forced his employers to disavow his experiment.
And that may be a very important aggravating factor, that not only did a scientist engage in an extremely high risk, dangerous experiment, but that he had the incentive and support to do so until the global scientific community exploded with alarm and anger, and he suddenly didn’t. Another scandal like this one is probably already in the works and we won’t know the details until it’s too late as authorities and the lab’s enablers do the necessary damage control.