Last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had created the world's first gene-edited human babies to correct genetic defects. This announcement shocked the world at a time when such a practice is illegal in most leading scientific countries. Recently, the American researcher, Juan Carlos Izpizoa Belmonte, revealed that he created the first human-monkey hybrid embryo in China to avoid legal issues in his country
By: David Lawrence Postdoctoral Fellow, Newcastle Law School, University of Newcastle
If a scientist wants to conduct groundbreaking but controversial biological research, he should move to China. Last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had created the world's first gene-edited human babies to correct genetic defects. This announcement shocked the world at a time when such a practice is illegal in most leading scientific countries. Recently, the American researcher, Juan Carlos Izpizoa Belmonte, revealed that he created the first human-monkey hybrid embryo in China to avoid legal issues in his country.
However, if China is fast becoming the capital of controversial science, it is not alone. More babies produced with the "CRISPR" gene editing technology are now being designed by a scientist in Russia, where another researcher also hopes to perform the world's first human head transplant. Japan also recently lifted its ban on animal-human hybrids.
The world is rapidly moving towards a two-tiered system of innovative medical research, widely divided between countries with minimal regulation and those that refuse to allow anything but the earliest stages of this process. The consequences of this fragmentation may be significant, and may even affect citizens' access to health.
The births of the CRISPR babies in China caused an uproar among the scientific community, which criticized Hu Jinkoi and called for a halt to all CRISPR research in human embryos. In about thirty countries, gene editing of human embryos is already banned outright or at least closely monitored. For example, in the UK only a handful of research groups are given a license to conduct experiments in the field, and certainly not with the aim of bringing an embryo into the world.
But in most countries things are less clear. The Chinese establishment was quick to condemn He's work and declare it illegal, and some commentators have argued that despite appearances, Chinese science is far from unregulated. However, the fact is that he was able to conduct the work without interruption, with evidence suggesting that he even received state funding.
When technology like CRISPR is advancing rapidly, many countries have not had time to develop expertise and form a comprehensive position. As a result, it seems that we cannot avoid a two-tiered system for this kind of research. Countries with developed biotech regulation will be able to adapt more quickly and easily to recent advances and set limits. Other countries will do nothing and effectively allow scientists to continue their research without having to consider the ethical or social implications of their work. This is assuming that all governments want to limit this type of research, but it's also possible that they don't.
We have seen what happens when there is this kind of international disconnection in other biotechnological fields. "Medical tourism" has become a booming sector in the health industry. People travel from all over the world to private clinics that provide - or claim to provide - stem cell treatments that are not available in their home countries. There have been cases of people traveling from the US to Mexico in order to circumvent federal laws and gain access to mitochondrial replacement therapy.
So it is safe to assume that those with the means to do so may try to access gene editing abroad when this is not available in their countries, perhaps to avoid a known hereditary defect that they carry. And as home DNA testing kits become common (though not necessarily accurate), the number of people who want to edit their genomes before having children is likely to increase.
The lack of medical regulations or their flexibility, causes the appearance of charlatan clinics that charge huge sums for what sounds like a miracle cure, but can be, at best, a sugar pill or at worst, an active harmful substance. And perhaps worst of all, regulatory issues may contribute to ruining the reputation of promising developments in medical technologies. The more threatening incidents are attributed to unregulated treatment, the less people will support legitimate medical trials.
This quasi-two-tier system of medical research oversight may also lead to techniques such as gene editing being more culturally acceptable than in other countries. Our society continues to struggle with xenophobia and racism, so we may also find prejudices and legal dilemmas developing for genetically modified humans (not including human-animal hybrids).
Will people born with technologies like CRISPR be allowed to visit or immigrate to countries where their very creation was illegal? Would it be illegal for them to have children and spread their genetically modified genomes? This type of conflict between international human rights legislation and domestic policy has yet to be examined but may lead to serious consequences.
Aggravation of health inequality
On the other side of the fence, if countries with strong regulations move too slowly in approving potentially life-saving or disability-preventing treatments, it could exacerbate health inequities. We already have serious global problems of distributive justice, the ways in which services or technologies are accessible only to the privileged. If a certain disease could be prevented using CRISPR, is it true that someone would have to risk their child developing the disease just because they cannot afford to travel to a country where this practice is legal?
The obvious solution - internationally agreed standards and regulations may be the solution, but unfortunately, we have so far not been able to reach a global consensus on gene editing issues, just like in embryo research. Even if a common agreement can be reached, the development and implementation of acceptable terms flexible enough to cope with the inevitable technological advances will take many years. For now, proposals for a concerted effort to track gene-editing research may be the best thing to do.
It is difficult to predict what can happen in the meantime. But it seems increasingly likely that gene editing and other controversial methods will take place in a variety of supervised and unsupervised circumstances. Unfortunately, little progress may be made until the kind of problems listed above become all too real.
More of the topic in Hayadan:
- A Russian scientist plans to genetically engineer babies by the end of 2019 - and the scientific bodies admit that they are unable to stop him
- The next step in human evolution - Part I: Where is the technology?
- The next stage in human evolution - part XNUMX human machine interface
- The next stage in human evolution - Part III: The moral and social questions