Depending on whom you ask, the gene editing technology CRISPR is either a savior, or one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. And some people’s worst fears materialized in late November, when a scientist announced the birth of two babies whose DNA he had edited. That claim hasn’t even been verified but has drawn strong and almost universal criticism.
It has also prompted renewed calls for a system of guidelines and safeguards for future CRISPR research. Despite the news, we shouldn’t forget that a lot of other CRISPR work was done this year.
Sharon Begley is a senior reporter with the health news website STAT who has been reporting on the subject. She noted that the news of CRISPR babies didn’t necessarily surprise the community, but the name of the doctor who went through with it did.
“Everybody thought that this was coming. The scientist who did this – Dr. He - he was not an unknown quantity. But if you had asked a dozen CRISPR experts who might do this, I don't think he would have been at the top of anybody's list,” Begley said.
The edit that Dr. He claimed he introduced was to reduce the risk of HIV infection. The claim is not verified and it’s not certain if it ever will be. Dr. He said that he is protecting the privacy of the family because the father is HIV positive.
The news of the CRISPR babies landed just as the international summit on human genome editing was getting under way in Hong Kong. By the end of that summit, organizers made a very strong call for an investigation and the ethics of Dr. He’s actions were widely condemned.
According to Begley, there's been a lot of discussion about whether it was in fact illegal in China. It’s certainly illegal in the United States and much of Western Europe. But China? “That seems to be a matter of interpretation,” Begley said.
While the news of Dr. He’s efforts have shocked much of the world, it’s safe to say that the controversy at the end of the year has not slowed down the pace of the rest of the field. This has a lot to do with the fact that there are therapeutic uses of CRISPR that have nothing to do with embryos.
For instance, the first US-company-backed clinical trial has already begun. It launched in the summer and is testing its use on a blood disorder called beta thalassemia. While it is backed by a US company, the recruiting will take place in Germany.
And to further the outlook on CRISPR’s future, according to Begley, polling has shown that when you ask people if you have a person who has a terrible genetic disease, if you could take out a few of that patients’ blood making cells and use this new technology to fix the genetic defect that is causing the disease and then you put those blood cells back and the person is cured, would you be in favor?
"The vast majority say yes. Of course and we want to cure people of a disease that is ruining their lives and probably shortening their lives.”