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Editorial : Huge outcry over birth of GM babies

【明報專訊】MAINLAND scientist He Jiankui's announcement of the birth of a pair of twins who were made AIDS-proof by genome-editing technology has provoked a huge outcry. More than a hundred Chinese scientists have signed a letter condemning his research while the Ministry of Science and Technology has made it clear that it is unlawful to edit the genomes of babies. Whether He will attend the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong has also become a topic of widespread concern. Genome editing has been the most sought-after medical technology in recent years but it has also raised ethical controversies from time to time. Although many countries have legislation to regulate research on human embryonic genomes, it is not difficult to exploit loopholes in the laws. The mainland authorities must launch an investigation to ascertain the facts surrounding He's claim and punish anyone who has violated the law. The Hong Kong government has been pushing hard to develop innovation and technology lately, with biotechnology and genetic engineering being one of the major fields identified. To prevent anyone from abusing the technology, the government must establish a regulatory framework in this regard.

From the birth of the first cloned sheep Dolly, stem cell research, to genome-editing technology in recent years, genetic technology has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past two decades. While such research has brought more hopes of treating various rare and difficult illnesses, it has also raised a multitude of ethical and moral issues. At the beginning of this century, an Italian scientist claimed success in human cloning, arousing widespread controversy even though his claims could not be verified. Many people are concerned that genetic modification (GM) may give rise to the issue of eugenics. They also worry that imprudent applications of genetic engineering technology to human beings are tantamount to "human experimentation". In the latest case, if the birth of genome-edited babies proves to be true, it will be the first of its kind in the world. It is imaginable how controversial this can be.

While genome editing technology can have unlimited potential in curing diseases, it can also be employed in other aspects, such as the creation of "super soldiers" with exceptional eyesight and physical strength. In fact, the US Department of Defense has poured significant resources into genome editing research in recent years. If genome editing technology is abused and used on human embryos, that may result in the birth of "designer babies" or "enhanced humans". Some people may attempt genome editing for the sake of having gifted offspring. If so, that will create social inequalities and alter the genetic development of human beings in the long run.

China, the US and Europe have invested heavily in genetic research in recent years. None of them wants to impose regulations that are too strict so as not to hamper the research and lag behind others. For instance, when Chinese scientists took the lead in doing genome editing experiments on human embryos in 2015, at first they drew criticisms from the US. However, later the US also loosened its own restrictions and did the same experiments. If countries relax their regulations too much in the process of competing for a leading position, they may also encourage some reckless scientists.

Hong Kong is striving to become an international centre for innovation and technology and has set biotechnology as one of the major fields for development. There are first-class genetic experts in the city, but its development in the field of genome editing has, relatively speaking, fallen behind, since in Hong Kong there is only research on cell cultivation but not on the application of genome editing. Presumably, its current hosting of the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing will give a huge boost to local research on this area. Amid the outcry over the creation of genome-edited babies, the government should take this as a warning and establish a regulatory framework as soon as possible. That way scientists will have laws to abide by when doing research and improper applications of genome editing technology can be avoided.

明報社評2018.11.28:基因改造嬰兒起風波 科技應用監管須加強

內地科學家賀建奎聲稱利用基因編輯技術,令一對具有愛滋病免疫能力的雙胞胎誕生,消息一出引發軒然巨波,過百中國科學家聯署譴責賀建奎的研究,國家科技部表示基因編輯嬰兒違法,各方關注賀建奎會否出席本港舉行的人類基因組編輯國際峰會。基因編輯技術是近年最炙手可熱的醫療科技,惟道德問題亦屢惹爭議,雖然多國有立法規管人類胚胎基因研究,然而有心人要鑽法律罅亦非難事。內地有必要查明基因編輯嬰兒真相,懲罰違法者。近年港府大力發展創科,生物科技基因工程是重點之一,政府應盡快訂立監管制度,避免有人濫用技術。

過去廿年,基因技術一日千里,由複製羊多莉誕生、幹細胞研究,到近年的基因編輯技術,無不為治療各種奇難雜症帶來更多希望,可是道德倫理問題也相當多。本世紀初,有意大利科學家聲稱成功複製人,是耶非耶無從得知,惟當年便曾掀起很大爭議。不少人關注基因改造可能衍生優生學問題,也擔心基因工程技術輕率用在人類身上,猶如「活人實驗」。今次基因編輯嬰兒若然屬實,將是全球首例,爭議之大可想而知。

基因編輯技術治病潛力無可限量,不過技術亦可用在其他方面,例如炮製視力體力超強的「超級士兵」,近年美國國防部便投入不少資源做基因編輯研究;若將基因編輯技術濫用在人類胚胎之上,更可能導致「設計嬰兒」、「強化人」出現,有人可能為求下一代天生異禀而編輯基因,製造社會不平等,長遠改變人類遺傳發展。

近年中美歐投入大量資源做基因研究,各方都不想管得死,以免窒礙研究,落後於人,例如2015年中國科學家率先做人類胚胎基因編輯實驗,惹來美國非議,惟後來美方也放寬限制,做了相同實驗。可是如果各國為了爭奪先機,管得太鬆,亦有可能助長個別科學家冒進行事。

香港力爭成為國際創科中心,生物科技是重點之一。本港有一流基因專家,惟在基因編輯領域發展較為落後,目前只有細胞培養研究,未有就基因編輯進行應用,今次主辦第2屆人類基因組編輯國際峰會,對於推動本港基因編輯研究大有幫助,政府應以這次基因編輯嬰兒風波為鑑,盡快訂立監管機制,讓科學家研究工作有法可依,避免有人將基因編輯科技用在不當地方。

■Glossary

outcry : a reaction of anger or strong protest shown by people in public

by leaps and bounds : very quickly; in large amounts

imprudent : not wise or sensible

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