Despite all the enthusiasm about the undeniably enormous promise of genome editing, we have to recognise that the technique is not yet perfected. We know, for example, that in some cases genome editing can completely delete larger-than-intended segments of the genome. In the wrong setting, such as the human germline, this could have devastating consequences.
What’s more, the data presented by He indicate that he didn’t have control of his own method. For instance, he didn’t induce the exact mutations he originally intended. The consequence of the actually created mutations is still unknown. In addition, the genome of the infants born in China may have only been modified in some body cells but not others, which could erase even the potential therapeutic benefit. He Jiankui himself was aware of these shortcomings, but still insisted on seeing the babies born.
He Jiankui ignored a number of scientific guidelines, including those he published under his own name. And based on statements from Chinese authorities, Jiankui may have circumvented fundamental procedures for conducting medical trials. He’s a rogue scientist who took a monstrous and unethical approach, wronging his patients.
But none of this means we should vilify the use of genome editing technology for good.
Important research and potential cures
Vital basic research on genome editing, including that on human embryos, is already underway. In Great Britain, the USA and China particularly, tightly regulated research is using the CRISPR/Cas9 method in order to modify human embryos. Scientists are thus investigating important issues relating to pregnancy and reasons for miscarriage. By long-standing law, the embryos must not be allowed to develop for more than 14 days.