A few months ago, the world was shocked when Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced his experiment led to the birth of the first genome-edited babies. While the details of his experiment continue to unravel, the experts tell us not to be worried about the misuse of CRISPR, a powerful gene-editing tool.
Michael Terns, a distinguished research professor at the departments of biochemistry and molecular biology, microbiology and genetics at the University of Georgia and a prominent CRISPR expert, said there are regulations and laws in place in the U.S. and other countries against this kind of genome editing research. He added that moving forward with genome editing, if it ever happens, would follow careful scientific consensus.
“We might reach a conclusion that [human genome editing] should never happen, because of side effects, just like certain drugs should not be given because the risks outweigh the benefits,” Terns said.
Aside from genome editing, Terns highlighted the importance of CRISPR as a basic research tool and as a therapeutic to treat diseases such as sickle cell anemia, muscular dystrophy and child blindness. In addition, Terns said using CRISPR to make novel antibiotics is another promising application.
While the CRISPR babies incident raised concerns about ethical issues and the consequences of manipulating human embryos, Terns said he does not expect any negative impact on funding CRISPR research in the future.
“I think that the potential of CRISPR in so many areas of science and its ability to help society in revolutionary ways completely overshadows this … one event,” Terns said.
David Lee, vice president for research at UGA, also anticipated no widespread effects of this incident on research funding or international scientific collaborations. He also emphasized the existence of laws that prohibit funding such research.
“Since 2015, the [National Institute of Health] has had a moratorium on funding research that involves genetic manipulation of human embryos, and such research may actually violate federal law,” Lee said, in an email.
Clare Edwards, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology who works with CRISPR technology, said a good thing coming out of the CRISPR babies incident is people calling for greater regulations and clear-cut lines when it comes to reporting scientific misconduct, especially when working across international borders.
She gave the example of an American Nobel laureate, Craig Mello, who served as an adviser to a biotech company founded by He. Mello was aware of He’s plans, but he did not report them. Edwards said she believes a lack of clarity in how to report may have complicated the situation.
In the wake of He’s announcement, China proposed new regulations regarding gene editing research, in what will hopefully prevent future incidents of questionable research.
“If anything, that Chinese researcher’s rogue activity was a wake-up call to everybody, how we have to get regulations, as a society, in place,” Terns said.
Correction: In a previous version of this article, The Red & Black incorrectly identified one of the departments Michael Terns worked in. The Red & Black regrets this error and it has since been fixed.