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Gene babies

Chinese scientist He announced last week that two genetically manipulated babies had been born. It’s led to a lot of debate: is this truly what CRISPR-Cas is capable of? Should we want this? What are the moral boundaries in this case?
By Christine Dirkse

Désirée Goubert

PhD student epigenetic editing

‘CRISPR-Cas is a technique with a lot of promise. But as far as I’m concerned there are still many questions that need answering before we can use it on embryos, such as how efficient the technique is and what its side effects are. You can change genes very precisely using CRISPR-Cas, but you can’t always know what the consequences are. Changing one gene could influence what a certain hormone does, which in turn influences other genes.

That’s not to say that we haven’t already been using CRISPR-Cas. China and the USA have been doing clinical studies on using CRISPR-Cas in the immune cells of cancer patients. The immune cells get an extra gene that can fight the tumour. These cells are then injected back into the patient.

I do hope this will lead to something good, like a larger societal debate about genetic editing. How far should we go? How will we prevent abuse of the technique? CRISPR-Cas isn’t just something that can help cure diseases; malicious people could also use it to make bio-bombs. I don’t mean that we should just ban the technique. That would be a waste of all the ways it can be used in healthcare. But we need to start talking about how to regulate it.’

Els Maeckelbergh

Senior lecturer of ethics

‘Ever since the introduction of CRISPR-Cas, it’s only been a matter of time before the first genetically modified baby was born. But this is too early, and the way it’s been done is questionable as well. In December of 2015, scientists agreed to take it easy. They would take the time to figure out the inherent risks and to do more research before anyone used the technique on people.

Especially since genetically modifying a single embryo also influences future generations. This gives rise to moral questions, which science needs to, and wants to, take into account.

So it came as quite a shock that this scientist used CRISPR-Cas to modify babies. This means he didn’t stick to the moral agreements and just barged on.

When Louise Brown, the first IVF baby, was born, people were similarly upset. The idea that we could influence nature like that scared people and they wondered where it would end. We need to approach this rationally. And more importantly, science needs to put a halt to it when things go wrong, no matter how hard it might be able to stop something that’s already in motion.’

Brigit Toebes

Professor of health law

‘Because this is the first time that someone has genetically modified an embryo that’s actually resulted in a baby, there is no jurisprudence that applies yet. At least, not in the European Court of Human Rights.

One issue that’s comparable is choosing a baby’s sex. In some countries, people want to select embryos bases on sex, because they’d prefer a boy, for example. This is illegal, except for medical reasons, like when there’s a hereditary disease that affects men more than women, for instance.

In the Netherlands we have the embryo law, which says we can tinker with embryos, but only for a limited period, and the embryo cannot be allowed to grow into an actual person. And you can select embryos for birth, but you’re not allowed to tinker with them. So that law expressly forbids using CRISPR-Cas on embryos.

In the end it’s up to the politicians to decide on how to change the law. That won’t be easy, because there various interests at stake: the interest of parents who would like a ‘perfect’ or ‘healthy’ child, the interest of the child that will eventually be born, and societal values.’



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