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Editorial : The genetically-edited babies incident

【明報專訊】MAINLAND scientist He Jiankui has given an explanation for the incident of the genetically-edited babies in the International Summit on Human Genome Editing. Some experts are worried that the incident might lead to regulating bodies imposing more stringent restrictions on gene-editing research. An inventor of the CRISPR genetic scissor technology has called for a global moratorium on using the technique to create genetically-edited babies. However, given the current rivalry between China and the US in the field of high technology, the incident might have become a watershed in the contest between leading genetic engineering nations. It might give rise to more ethically controversial and secret research in biotechnology, impacting and testing scientific ethics.

The world has been stunned by He Jiankui, associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, who claims that he has successfully created a pair of HIV-resistant twins using gene-editing technology. Since the gene-editing tool was invented just a few years ago, its development is far from mature. Applying the technology to embryos directly at this stage is therefore problematic. Some scholars are worried that the incident might result in regulating bodies around the world imposing more stringent restrictions, jeopardising gene-editing researches. However, the incident might also move in the opposite direction due to the race between world powers.

Genetic engineering and artificial intelligence are the two prominent fields of high technology of this century. The CRISPR genetic scissor technology has opened the door to gene-editing. The numbers of patents granted to the application of the technology in China and in the US are similar, with each country accounting for about 20% of all patents in the world. However, a Goldman Sachs report claims that China is beating the US in the race. An American expert is so alarmed that he claims that the Sputnik moment of biotechnology has come. The scenario is similar to what happened half a century ago when the former USSR launched the Sputnik satellite before the US and gave rise to the space race.

Currently Europe has the most stringent laws that regulate gene-editing of human embryos. Many European countries ban all research on human germline gene-editing. Laws in developing countries such as China and India are relatively lax and there are grey areas in the regulation of gene-editing techniques. In the US, even though by law the federal government is prohibited from subsidising research on gene-editing of human embryos, there is no legislation that bans gene-editing research. Last year, US scientists agreed that to prevent a disease, the genes of a human embryo could be changed in rare circumstances "under strict oversight", thus opening the door to genetically-modified babies.

After He Jiankui's research was made public, Zhang Feng, a Chinese American inventor of CRISPR, has called for a global moratorium on using the techniques to create genetically-edited babies. However, the genetic engineering race has already started and it is completely unpredictable whether such a ban will ever be imposed. In recent years, some American scientists have been talking about how human genes can be changed for humans to adapt to life on Mars. "It is only a matter of time before a new type of human being appears". Some scholars have even claimed to have identified over 40 genes that are favourable for long-distance space travels. The world is big and it is not easy to ensure that no scientist is conducting experiments stealthily. In fact, the birth of genetically-edited babies will probably result in more people wanting to try.

明報社評2018.11.29:基因工程競賽白熱化 中美科技爭逐難回頭

內地科學家賀建奎出席人類基因組編輯國際峰會,交代基因編輯嬰兒風波。有基因專家憂慮,事件或令監管機構對基因編輯研究採取更嚴格限制,「基因剪刀」CRISPR技術發明人呼籲全球締結協議禁止基因編輯嬰兒,可是若考慮到當前中美高科技領域競爭情况,今次風波也有可能成為基因工程大國競賽分水嶺,觸發更多存在道德爭議的生物科技秘密研究,科學倫理將面臨更多考驗衝擊。

深圳南方科技大學副教授賀建奎聲稱,成功以基因編輯技術,令一對具有愛滋病免疫能力的雙胞胎出生,消息震驚國際。基因編輯技術出現不過數年,發展並未成熟,現階段將技術直接應用於胎兒,做法大有問題。有學者憂慮今次風波後,各地監管機構可能引入更嚴格限制,妨礙基因編輯研究,然而大國競爭亦有可能成為事態朝相反方向發展的推力。

基因工程與人工智能是本世紀兩大高科技領域。基因剪刀技術開啟了基因編輯大門,中美的基因剪刀技術應用專利項目,數量旗鼓相當,各佔全球總數接近兩成。高盛一份報告聲稱,中國已在基因編輯競賽壓倒美國,美方專家更驚呼生物科技的「史普尼克時刻」(Sputnik moment)已經來臨,情形一如半世紀前蘇聯搶先美國成功發射史普尼克衛星,觸發太空競賽。

當今歐洲對人類胚胎基因編輯研究管得最嚴,多國立法禁止以人類生殖細胞作研究,中國、印度等發展中國家相對寬鬆,法律規管有灰色地帶。美國方面,雖然法律禁止聯邦政府資助人類胚胎基因編輯研究,惟同樣沒有立法限制研究,去年美國科學界同意,可以在「嚴格監管及罕有情况」改變人類基因,藉以避免疾病,為基因改造嬰兒叩開大門。

賀建奎研究曝光後,基因剪刀技術發明人、美籍華裔科學家張鋒主張締結全球協議,禁止基因編輯嬰兒,可是基因工程競賽已經展開,能否成事全無把握。近年一些美國科學家已大談如何改造人類基因,以便適應火星環境生活,「新人類出現只是時間問題」,有學者更表示已辨認出逾40個有利長途太空航程的基因。世界之大,要保證沒有科學家悄悄進行實驗談何容易。基因編輯嬰兒誕生,可能令更多人躍躍欲試。

■Glossary

moratorium : a temporary stopping of an activity, especially by official agreement

jeopardise sth/sb : to risk harming or destroying sth/sb

stealthily : quietly and secretly

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