【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.
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