Following the revelation that a rogue geneticist broke regulations to create the world’s first genetically modified babies, Philip Boucher-Hayes has recorded a special podcast for Drivetime on RTÉ Radio 1.
"I know my work will be controversial" said Chinese geneticist He Jiankui in November of last year. His work in the laboratory may never receive any awards, but that remark should earn him a few medals for understatement.
This week a preliminary investigation concluded that the rogue geneticist had broken regulations to create the world’s first genetically modified babies. China has said that He will be punished for his actions, his university has fired him, and his colleagues the world over have not been shy of condemning him.
A team of investigators told the official state Xinhua news agency that He had intentionally dodged research oversight and used potentially unsafe techniques to edit human embryos. They claimed that He forged ethical approvals to recruit eight couples to his research project, resulting in two pregnancies. One of the mothers gave birth to twins. Another woman is carrying another gene-edited foetus.
The world’s first designer babies have been born. Lulu and NaNa had the DNA of their embryos edited to reduce the possibility that they would become HIV+. At face value it was a laudable aim, but one that was fraught with risk and ultimately, in the view of many, not necessary.
For good or ill He’s surgery for the cell opens a door most scientists were happy should remain closed while society figures out what uses it wants to put this double-edged technology to. While curing a range ofconditions from inherited cancers and cardiac diseases to Cystic Fibrosis and Huntington’s disease is now theoretically possible, so too are darker possibilities.
Taller, faster, longer living, whiter, browner, smarter babies, "Whatever your pocket can afford" says Asim Sheikh, a barrister who also teaches in the UCD School of Medicine. Choosing from a palette of genetic traits to create the child you want is now well within technical reach. And as He Jiankui shows, if it can be done it is only a matter of time before somebody will do it.
The battle lines in a furious new ethical debate have been drawn. On the one hand there are those who argue that just because we can play god – should we? Versus those who say – if we know how to reduce human suffering and cure disease now how can we not?