Updated: Jun 28, 2020
By Lizzie Quinn
The topic of genetic modification conjures thoughts of Sharktopus and The Amazing Spider-Man, among other exaggerated films from Hollywood. The former centers around the U.S. Navy’s commissioning of a half-shark, half-octopus hybrid for combat. The latter involves a genetically engineered spider that bites outcast high schooler Peter Parker, who then develops spider-like abilities and takes on the superhero name of “Spider-Man.” Outside the realm of the film industry’s picturing of manipulated genetics as unnatural, genetic modification exists in today’s society separate from creating biological weaponry or superheroes.
At the end of November of last year, MIT Technology Review announced Dr. He Jiankui’s success in producing gene-edited identical twins, inspiring worldwide controversy. Earlier in the year, Dr. He — assistant professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China — altered the DNA in the embryos of a pair of twin girls using the DNA-snipping technology CRISPR. Dr. He cut out a portion of DNA from the gene CCR5 with the goal of making the twins resistant to HIV infection. What stunned his colleagues and attendees at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in November 2018 wasn’t the process of gene editing, per se, but the laws that Dr. He disregarded and the blatant secrecy he hid under to operate on human test subjects.
CRISPR, which stands for ‘Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeat,’ involves a guide RNA that shows a Cas9 protein the strand of target DNA to ‘trim’ out of a DNA sequence. CRISPR shows excellent promise in the future but, in its current state, cannot be put to common use. Advances in any given field, science included, cannot be achieved by “one giant leap for mankind.” Little by little — “one small step for man,” as Neil Armstrong uttered — they must be done with safety precautions in place so as not to risk the creation of an actual being from the depths of Hollywood filmmakers’ minds. However, as unlikely as those situations shown in Sharktopus and The Amazing Spider-Man may be, mainstream society believes them as possible. So if the ethics of using human test subjects fails to resonate the general public, scientists can look forward to public backlash from their illegal and dangerous actions.
Leaders in genomics are turning to more ethical alternatives to human testing, with some trying to fully eliminate testing on animals. Dr. He’s findings (and his ways of attaining them) can be added to the long list of immoral scientific studies. For example, the infamous HeLa cells, known for their immortality and ability to multiply indefinitely, contributed to major scientific breakthroughs over the years: testing drugs, helping develop the polio vaccine, and aiding cancer and HIV research. Researchers at Johns Hopkins extracted the original HeLa cells from a cervical cancer patient by the name of Henrietta Lacks without her or her family’s consent or knowledge. This isn’t to say that Dr. He and current doctors should look towards human test subjects — both willing and unwilling — to further their research, but what’s been done in the past is irreversible. Scientists must bring all facets of their work out of the shadows and search for less controversial and more viable solutions for creating vaccines or curing the world’s diseases that don’t involve the secretive testing of humans, as Dr. He did.
Currently, there are nation-by-nation regulations in place to make sure that clandestine human testing procedures don’t occur — which, as one can tell, don’t seem to regulate to the greatest of extents if Dr. He was able to complete his genetic modification procedure shadowed out of the spotlight. The question of how ethical these procedures are, in addition to the lack of complete understanding of how this new CRISPR technology works, has sparked much controversy. While Dr. He’s genetic modification may have stirred riot among the scientific and widespread community, “genetically modified people are walking among us,” as New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer puts it. Dr. He wasn’t the first to defy the regulations of gene editing on humans, but misconstrued public reception of his findings will hinder further research in the field, perhaps leading to stricter laws about what can be done in the coming years. Even though Dr. He’s testing on human subjects wasn’t against the law in China, the practice is strongly opposed, and Chinese scientists fired criticisms at Dr. He, one of which claiming his research to be “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”
Along the same lines of Dr. He’s secretive study, without oversight from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), fertility doctors in New Jersey in the mid-1990s used mitochondrial replacement therapy to rejuvenate defective cells within the eggs of women who struggled to become pregnant. The patients had healthy children, but society responded with an outroar of shock about genetic mixing during the process of mitochondrial replacement. When the NJ doctors tracked down the children (now teenagers), they found the subjects to be free of complications. The FDA demanded more testing on this treatment and forced the doctors to end their studies.
Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the FDA, spoke with BioCentury with warnings of “potential regulations and laws that could be far more restrictive than they might otherwise be if there were more confident that the [scientific] community was able to self-impose appropriate standards.” In situations like Dr. He’s, the only logical solution to limit the amount of shrouded testing is to impose restrictive standards like those mentioned by Mr. Gottlieb. Constructive debate about the ethics of genetic engineering, then, is difficult to attain without full disclosure, which contributes to its large lack of significant conversation.
That being said, genetic engineering doesn’t have to be feared. Instead of simply doing away with CRISPR and its life-saving potential, researchers need to put their efforts towards becoming more familiar with the technology. The role of the global population, then, is to weigh the benefits of such technologies, not to steer the conversation away from these topics. It’s one thing to bash the Hollywood screenwriters of Sharktopus and The Amazing Spider-Man for instilling fear in genetic modification, but it’s another thing to discuss with an open mind about putting the life-saving CRISPR and other prongs of gene-editing like mitochondrial replacement therapy into common practice. Then, after careful practice and monitored testing, researchers can continue with transparency as they shift to tackling more trivial matters among humans.