Pandora’s Box :: By Matt Ward

Crispr Technologies & Pandora’s Box
Opening Pandora’s Box: a process that once begun generates many complicated problems…

I have written very recently on Crispr technologies and the dangers they pose (1). Those dangers have now been realized.

Just two weeks ago, He Jianku was a virtual unknown. Now, he is world famous in his own right. Perhaps a better description would be that he is now infamous rather than famous.

The reason for this is that, from late last month, news started to emerge about the activities of a certain young, formally unknown Chinese researcher who, it was revealed, had been “pushing the envelope” regarding Crispr technology. He was conducting “live” experiments, all of which have now propelled He Jianku to the very center of a global firestorm involving ethics, science, oversight and regulation and a host of other concerns.

Jianku announced on November 28th at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing that he had produced the world’s first Crispr-edited babies. They are twin girls named Lulu and Nana.

The response from the scientific community, normally a group known for celebrating the radical pushing of boundaries, has been swift and wholly vitriolic. The condemnation has been brutal. Jennifer Doudna, who originally discovered a way of using Crispr to edit genes in 2012, a women regarded as one of the founders of this whole revolution, said,

“I am shocked and disgusted by this news. This work sets a dangerous precedent unless there is a broad global rejection of the clinical processes used. The global scientific community has reacted strongly (with) calls for verification and redoubled efforts to put in place criteria for the clinical use of Crispr.”

David Liu, another Harvard University professor who was also responsible for the initial development of Crispr technologies in 2012, responded unequivocally,

“It is appalling that the human babies were generated without the full engagement of independent scientific and ethics experts, relevant regulatory institutions and governing bodies. His naivety about multiple scientific, medical and ethical issues was very alarming to hear in person.”

These were not sentiments shared in any way by Jianku. The young Chinese researcher disclosed, to the consternation of almost all in attendance at the summit, that he wasn’t finished with Lulu and Nana, as if this wasn’t bad enough. Jianku went on to reveal that he had also Crispr-edited another live embryo and that this pregnancy was already well under way.

Despite the fact that there have been up to sixty meetings and reports on gene editing held or published in just the last three years, and that each of these reports concluded, as did each meeting, that it would be too soon to attempt any kind of live trial, Jianku has proceeded anyway, almost irrelevant to and oblivious of the risks.

Despite the fact that the experiments he had been conducting flew directly in the face of all previous agreement among geneticists, on ethical as well as scientific grounds, Jianku moved forward with the experiments nonetheless.

This means that He Jianku will now be recorded in history, like Neil Armstrong before him, as a man of “firsts.” He Jianku will be remembered as the first scientist to implant a live Crispr-edited embryo into a uterus to cause pregnancy. Up until this point, every single embryo ever edited using Crispr technology had been destroyed.

This has huge implications for the two little girls involved. It means that Lulu and Nana are the first human beings who will one day pass on the intentionally manmade mutations in their DNA through the Crispr process to their children, and their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children, and so on as long as their individual lines last.

The ramifications of this little jump into the wild will be felt potentially long after He Jianku and little Lulu and Nana have passed away. Every newly born child of their direct line born after them will now inherit these DNA “modifications,” potentially for as long as their progeny lasts. His response to the groundswell of opposition to his actions, to the moral implications of his actions, and to riding roughshod over all ethical concerns was that he “…feels proud actually.”

All other scientists seem unanimous in agreeing that He Jianku may well now have opened a Pandora’s Box; and it is completely unknown, from both an experiential and a scientific point of view, what may now come out of it.

The issue with Jianku’s journey into the unknown, aside from the obvious and huge ethical ramifications, is that the techniques used by Jianku are largely untested. One of the so-far-observed great flaws with Crispr gene-editing techniques is that they often seem to cause “off-target” mutations elsewhere that harm the host’s DNA (2).

This outcome is even more pronounced when editing whole embryos, as has been done in this case. Unlike editing specific and targeted cells to impact a certain genetic problem like cancer, gene editing whole embryos, not individual isolated cells, has the potential to change the DNA in every single cell in an embryo’s body. The potential implications of this are beyond huge, on an individual level for Nana and Lulu, and also for the human race corporately.

Yet He Jianku blithely pressed on with his experiments regardless of the risks or the fears and the censure of his colleagues.

This reveals the real issue with this technology: how widespread and readily available it is becoming and how it is utterly lacking in any kind of significant regulatory oversight. That we know of Jianku’s experiment does not mean that he is the only individual to this date who has “pushed the envelope” the furthest with Crispr gene-editing techniques. He Jianku is just the one we are all currently aware of.

It is highly likely that similar types of experimentation have already happened and are indeed ongoing at any number of disreputable laboratories or government sites around the world. The US and its Western military partners are on record as saying they are very interested in generating the world’s first genetically improved super soldiers. Ominously, they are also on record as saying that they simply cannot allow themselves to fall behind in this new “arms race” to other less ethically bound, rogue regimes.

The implications of this are all too clear; this kind of unscrupulous experimentation, pushing on ahead despite ethical, moral or scientific concerns, has likely already been occurring for quite some time.

Even scientists at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing (where He Jianku made his now infamous announcement about his live experimentations) who went on seemingly to unequivocally condemn his actions, only did so with a proviso: “…the Committee (of the International Summit) added that, should the risks be addressed, it may in future become acceptable when there is a compelling medical need.”

And the danger of this technological tinkering with genes and DNA is not limited to Crispr technologies. We are already well into the era where scientists are trying to grow organs inside pigs to be transplanted into human beings. Genetically modified pig hearts have already been transplanted successfully into baboons, with the monkeys living for over 90 days afterwards on each occasion. How long until we reach the point where pig-grown human organs plug the gap between the need for transplants and the pressing lack of donors? Surely not long.

Yet God’s attitude towards this is very specific and clear,

“God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25).

The fact that God made wild animals according to their kinds, and that it was good, clearly implies that crossing species is bad. It also implies that messing with and altering a species at a DNA or germline level is a bad thing.

Humanity is once again delving deeply into areas that once brought great judgment upon this earth. We have entered a new age for humanity. Not all new technology is good technology, not all new developments are good developments, and just because we have reached a point where we can do something new does not mean that we should.

With Crispr and other such technologies, a Pandora’s Box has been opened, and who knows where this is heading or what may come out. One thing I think is a certainty though; it will not be shut again this side of the return of Jesus.

“They gave Pandora a box. Prometheus begged her not to open it. She opened it. Every evil to which human flesh is heir came out of it.” – Kurt Vonnegut.

  2. New Scientist, No. 3207, page 8