Like many around the world, Canadian Friends Service Committee was deeply concerned to read the claim that twin babies were born after their DNA was altered in heritable ways using synthetic biology technique CRISPR.
News reports since suggest that He Jiankui worked with a few people, mostly in secret, in order to recklessly pursue we know not what—a sincere dream of helping people? A desire for fame or accolades? An impatient curiosity to see what would happen?
Given that changes made to these babies’ DNA have not been proven safe, this research seems like human experimentation (without even having the possibility of conferring significant medical benefits) done without public awareness, oversight, or even the parents’ fully-informed consent.
For years CFSC has named the potential benefits, but also raised serious concerns about the social, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of the powerful new suite of techniques called synthetic biology.
These techniques are developing far faster than regulation or public awareness can keep up with. We’ve issued various brief non-technical updates about where this research is trying to go—from gene drives that might theoretically eradicate a whole species to “living shoes”.
He Jiankui’s work demonstrates that individuals can circumvent the weak processes and often voluntary guidelines in place and make far-reaching decisions about their synthetic biology work. This is dangerous. We are deeply concerned about the potential grave and unknown harms that even well-meaning researchers could cause, and we call again for a renewed focus on precaution.
Below is a joint letter signed by nearly two hundred individual academics and organizations, including CFSC.
November 28, 2018
The undersigned individuals and organizations wish to express our dismay and outrage at He Jiankui’s claims of creating genetically engineered babies. Though these claims are unverified, his actions violate a key provision of the concluding statement issued at the First International Summit on Human Gene Editing in 2015, that such dangerous experiments should not proceed until there was broad societal consensus in their favor.
That statement was intended to reassure civil society that the scientific community could regulate itself and prevent such reckless behavior. If the organizers of this week’s summit in Hong Kong wish to demonstrate that science is not out of control, and is worthy of public trust, now is the time for them and the rest of the international scientific community to act.
We urge that they (1) condemn in clear terms the rogue actions of the researcher who has taken it on himself to make a hugely consequential decision that affects all of us; and (2) call on governments and the United Nations to establish enforceable moratoria prohibiting reproductive experiments with human genetic engineering.
Such policies are necessary in order to ensure that we do not get into a run away international competition for primacy in reproductive genetic engineering, leading to a new form of eugenics. If the summit and other scientific bodies do not act, it will fall to civil society and policy makers to do so, in order to ensure the avoidance of disastrous consequences for global society.
Learn more about synthetic biology.