China science

Why parents of gene-edited babies are unlikely to have the peace of mind they sought

  • While Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s experiment may have protected the twins from HIV, they are vulnerable to other unforeseen consequences
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2018, 2:52am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2018, 5:24am

The shocking revelation by a scientist that a pair of twin girls have had their genetic make-up successfully altered to disable a HIV-related gene by means of genome editing has caused quite a controversy around the globe, with those lambasting the scientist for being unethical outnumbering people hailing him as a hero for the scientific breakthrough (“Scientists line up to take aim at research behind Chinese biologist He Jiankui’s gene-edited babies”, November 28). The tweaking of the girls’ DNA for the purpose of disease prevention may sound justifiable at first glance, yet such an experiment has far-reaching implications for both the scientific world and laymen like us.

It is, of course, everyone’s hope that the twin girls will grow up healthy and happy, but the possibility that they may face potential health risks cannot be overlooked.

Government involvement key to managing dangers of gene editing

Numerous experts and scientists have already pointed out that changing a baby’s genetic material may result in side effects such as susceptibility to flu or other diseases. The parents of the twin girls may have to take them for regular check-ups to closely monitor their health and growth for fear of complications that might arise. Their minds would be far from at ease, as they will have to live with the knowledge that their daughters are subject to unknown health risks for the rest of their lives. Wasn’t eliminating uncertainty from the equation the parents’ intention all along? Have they really succeeded in doing so now that their daughters might encounter other health risks?

Health issues aside, there are a few million-dollar questions: Is genome editing ethical or legal? Under what circumstances is genome editing acceptable? Who and how can we decide when a case warrants the use of the procedure? How do we determine if the consent given by a patient or family member is legitimate?

Ethics and safety are key with probe into claims of gene editing

These questions are so controversial that even scientists have not reached a conclusion. However, considering the backlash from both scientists and the general public, it appears gene editing of human embryos before birth remains a no-go area, even to the keenest experts.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Playing god in the name of eliminating birth defects might lead to unforeseeable consequences for the fetus. For exploration on the subject, everyone should read Perfect People, a science fiction novel by Peter James, chronicling the experience of parents who give birth to genetically modified twins with the help of a scientist. We might find some answers there.

Jason Tang, Tin Shui Wai