Breakthroughs and abuse

Technological breakthroughs often lead to both wonderful opportunities for advancement and potential for abuse. Nuclear physics and the internet are two undeniable examples. A third example was prominent in the news recently when a scientist in China, Dr. He, reported that he had genetically modified the DNA of twin girls using a very powerful new genetic tool known as CRISPR. The modification he claimed to have made (a claim that is unverified at present) is that he removed, or “knocked out” a molecule known as CCR5 that is known to be the entry point of the HIV virus into cells. His stated goal was to increase the ability of these girls to resist HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

This development is disturbing at many levels.

  • This research was not performed in an open manner, where plans were reviewed, discussed and approved ahead of time by panels not involved in the research.
  • There are other established, less risky ways to prevent HIV infection.
  • It is not clear whether informed consent was obtained from the parents of these girls or whether collaborators in the research truly understood the nature of the research.
  • The role of CCR5 is not limited to HIV. It is a key molecule in controlling the immune response to infection. If Dr. He’s claims are true, it will take many years before we know whether knocking-out CCR5 is safe or whether these girls will be prone to other infections.
  • Every cell in the body of these girls will lack CCR5, including their reproductive cells. Therefore, the changes induced by Dr. He will be passed on to the children of these girls. In other words, He has made changes that will be passed on from generation to generation.

If the reports we are hearing are true, Dr. He failed to follow the basic principles that are critical to the ethics of scientific study and human subjects research. He should not be congratulated for a scientific breakthrough, but should be condemned at all levels and blocked from participating in research moving forward. Policies that are in place to prevent such abuse should be reviewed, reinforced and enforced.

Despite this abuse, it is important to point out that CRISPR remains a remarkable tool with great potential for improving knowledge and reducing human suffering. We now use the CRISPR technology in the laboratory on a regular basis to understand the genetics of cancer cells, and the immune response to cancer, and I foresee use of the CRISPR technology in the near future not only to help us understand the nature of cancer, but to treat a broad variety of cancers more effectively and safely. These studies are all being done after careful review, and in a manner that follows the rules that have been put in place to assure research involving this technology is done safely and ethically.

As with nuclear physics and the internet, the challenge with genetic modification is to block abuse and unethical behavior while leveraging the great potential of scientific advances for human good. This begins with investigating, condemning, punishing and preventing inappropriate conduct such as that claimed by Dr. He, while celebrating and supporting true advances that come from research that is conducted ethically and has the potential to help us all.