Gene-editing human embryos ‘a train wreck of a thing to do’

Researcher He Jiankui shows “The Human Genome” a book he edited in 2016 (CNS/Reuters)

The revelation last week that a Chinese researcher had edited genes in human embryos and then implanted them in a woman was “a train wreck of a thing to do,” says an ethicist at a US Catholic bioethics centre. Source: CNS.

“Normally, clinical research proceeds in phases. First, you verify it works in animals, etc. Second, you verify that it’s safe. In small things you verify it’s effective,” said John Brehany of the National Catholic Bioethics Centre in Philadelphia.

“He skipped all that stuff. He says, ‘I practiced in animals and human embryos.’ Even the Chinese officials are saying he violated their standards,” Mr Brehany told CNS.

“He said he didn’t want to be first, he wanted to set an example, but he’s toying with human health. He said he practiced on human embryos, so that means he probably destroyed them. He practiced in the context of experimentation.”

Mr Brehany was referring to He Jiankui, who first revealed his efforts on November 26 during an international gene-editing conference in Hong Kong. He learned the gene-editing technique, known as CRISPR, while doing advanced research at Rice University in Texas.

“The couples were offered free fertility treatment if they participated in this, and that’s an unethical inducement,” Mr Brehany said. “They might have been told it was a vaccine for AIDS,” as the babies’ father was HIV-positive, he added. He had said he sought to remove the gene that triggers HIV infection. “In other words, there are multiple, multiple ways this was a hash. It really was a hash.”

The Church’s position is spelled out in the 2008 Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of a Person). The dignity of a person, the document says, “must be recognised in every human being from conception to natural death. This fundamental principle expresses a great ‘yes’ to human life and must be at the centre of ethical reflection on biomedical research.”

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Ethicist: Gene-editing human embryos ‘a train wreck of a thing to do’(CNS)

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