Genome editing: do we need global regulation?

Saturday 2 November, 17:3018:45, Frobisher 4-6Technological futures

In November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui sent shockwaves through the scientific world with the announcement that he had genetically modified – and then successfully brought to term – twin girls. A world first, the ‘experiment’ was met with gasps of horror as fellow scientists condemned both the technicalities of his approach and the way in which it was carried out. But who decides what is and is not ethical – and how could any regulations be enforced in every country around the world?

Dr He’s aims appeared to be noble enough: to use genome editing to provide immunity to HIV for children where one parent is HIV-positive, thus allowing those children to avoid considerable stigma. Dr He employed a method called CRISPR, which uses a naturally occurring defence mechanism found in bacteria to allow scientists to edit genomes far more quickly and accurately than before. But by editing heritable DNA in embryos and allowing those individuals to be born, Dr He went far further than many believe is ethical or politically sensible.

Despite outward-facing cries of shock – including from CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna, who was ‘horrified’ and ‘disgusted’ – many in the field privately admitted a sense of inevitability about an experiment of this kind. As technologies like CRISPR become both more advanced and widely available, the risk of other scientists ignoring regulations – and, in some cases, laws – increases. Add to this the string of private companies continuing to try to commercialise humanity’s desire for ‘perfection’ and the picture becomes all the more complicated.

So what needs to happen next? Most scientists would agree that we just don’t know enough about this relatively new technology to guarantee its safety. In this view, tighter regulation for both companies and individuals is essential. But, as with any new technology, will more regulation delay or even prevent the building of knowledge and the development of important new therapies?

Most experts also agree that genome editing could have a profound impact across the world, suggesting that we need global regulation. But is regulating at a global level even possible, especially if isolationism and national competition is on the rise, as many argue? How would the rules be defined and who would enforce them? Would all countries get an equal say or would the most developed countries impose Westernised liberal morals on everyone – demonising all who disagree as ‘unethical’ and ‘monstrous’?