That Didn’t Take Long

So, right after scientists got their hands on the gene editing tool called CRISPR-cas9 in 2015, the moral gymnastics began. Scientists faced the challenge of how to use — or more importantly how not to use — a new, powerful, and (ethically speaking) little understood technology.

Well, some faced it. Others ignored it, as we knew they would, moving us with steady inevitability to human experimentation. The only question was when, and what particular someone would do it.

Now we know. A scientist named He Jiankiu just did it, went ahead and genetically altered embryos and — this is the big leap into and over the moral quagmire — implanted them in their mother. Twin girls with edited DNA were born somewhere in China last month, marking a new milestone, moving lab experiments out of the lab, making lab experiments into humans and into who knows what.

He’s goal was to pass along an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus. Sounds like a good and noble endeavor.

It was not.

Turns out this kind of human experimentation isn’t needed. He’s experiment involved dads who tested positive with the virus and moms who did not. But there are other, simpler and less dangerous ways to prevent a father from passing HIV to his offspring. In search of an analogy, is this like cutting off your arm to prevent a scratch on your finger?

At a 2017 talk He gave at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory about genome editing in human and animal embryos, he urged scientists to move cautiously on using CRISPR-cas9. Given that he was already conducting his experiments, that’s what’s called two-faced: He was lying or he was issuing warnings to buy himself time, both signs of a stand-up guy.

He moved along with his work, continuing (shockingly) with the lies, or their kinder little brothers known as omissions. For instance, He didn’t tell his superiors or China’s “regulatory” bodies about his work until long after he’d started. Oops. He might have also omitted telling parents participating in his experiments the risks their children faced. (According to the NY Times, He’s lied about having Stephen Quake, a Stanford professor of bioengineering and applied physics, on the board of his company. Lying seems to be in He’s DNA — perhaps he could CRISPR-cas9 it out of his future children.)

If He is telling the truth about his work (and there’s a real chance he’s not), then we do know that one of the twins wasn’t fully altered, not only raising the possibility of greater risks to her in the future, but also rendering her a test subject who exists solely to see how she develops relative to her sibling.

Do the parents know this? Not clear. Do they know if He accidentally altered any of the twins’ other genes? Well, He hasn’t provided any proof of his experiment, so no one knows if he did or not.

The response so far has been mostly shock and awe. A group of 120+ Chinese scientists labeled He’s actions “crazy” and his claims “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.” The director of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University called his work “completely insane”. Good reviews for a Slipknot concert, not a science experiment.

Still, He’s maintained he’s proud of what he’s done. (Cue the cliches: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.)

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the AP. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

The easy response is Oh yeah, society does a top notch job of that. But the bigger problems is that He has already decided. Any and all moral wrangling about if, when, and how is moot. He has given other scientists a blank check to go ahead with their wildest ideas. CRISPR-cas9 makes pursuing them relatively easy, so with the moral hurdle cleared all that’s left is to dream up a cause. Do-gooders wanted. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, and He knows it. He’s already resorted to the most crass excuse, saying “There will be someone, somewhere, who is doing this. If it’s not me, it’s someone else.”

This is what happens when you have know-how but not wisdom, the technology user manual and nothing but ego.

To anyone’s who’s paid attention even a little to CRISPR-cas9 news (and I have a little), all there’s to be said about He’s unconscionable move: big surprise (sarcastically). But there’s no glee in “I told you so”. What’s left is to lessen the fallout. Given what’s already happened, there’s not a lot of reason for optimism.