UK and China: Two ends of the spectrum for gene editing embryos
A 21-member citizen jury gathered at the Wellcome Genome Campus near Cambridge has urged the U.K. government to consider changing the laws around gene editing of embryos, The Guardian reported. All jurors had a personal experience of a genetic condition, with some being parents of children who had died due to genetic conditions.
Gene editing is the method that allows scientists to make changes to the DNA sequence, the genetic material of an individual. While this is helpful for those affected by genetic diseases, the method is controversial because it could also be used to introduce changes for specific qualities or traits, which will be passed on to future generations.
Five years ago, He Jiankui, a scientist from Shenzhen, China, claimed that he had created the world's first gene-edited babies. He claimed that by using gene editing, he had introduced genetic changes that made a set of twins, resistant to HIV infections. In 2019, a Chinese court fined He and sentenced him to prison for three years. Upon his release, He plans to set up a clinic in Hong Kong to treat Duchenne Muscule Dystrophy (DMD), another genetic condition.
Gene Editing: To do or not to do?
In the U.K., the 21-member jury expressed their opinions at the Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing. Scientists are of the view that gene editing techniques will mature enough in a few years to be used for making genetic changes that will impact future generations too.
While this would be welcome news for over two million people that live with a genetic condition, in the U.K. alone, it also brings up ethical concerns and how the technology needs to be implemented. Currently, regulations in most countries allow experiments that conduct gene editing of embryos but these never reach the pregnancy stage.
Following He's experiments, China has introduced new regulations for ethical approvals, supervision, and inspection. However, experts are skeptical if they can be effectively implemented in the country. He's experiments led to the birth of twins that only he has had access to and if one believes He's claims are in good health.
Critics have wondered how He is allowed to practice and conduct experiments following his conviction. On the other hand, the jury argues that the focus on "designer babies" must not derail the progress of a technology that helps millions of people.
For the regulation around gene editing seems too lax or too stringent at either end. A larger debate on what can be allowed and what needs to be disallowed is the need of the hour and technology is improving at a rapid pace and can easily be put to use, whether the world is ready for it or not.
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