The ethics: Can we deny ourselves benefits of DNA technology?
A revolution has occurred with the creation of He Jiankui’s gene-edited baby using CRISPR-Cas9 incorporating ability to resist heritable HIV/ AIDS infection. There has been widespread condemnation of this as well as raking up laws citing a ban on this kind of research. Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen has denied knowledge about the work and an inquiry has been launched. Although the work is still not accepted by the scientific community and society, we need to explore the ethical dimensions of this work.
Let’s go back to the history and the uproar on the birth of the first test-tube baby in 1978 especially in India. The birth of Durga (Kanupriya Agarwal) — now a mother of a five-year-old — difficulties faced by her in acceptance by society, the well-known torture and harassment meted out to Dr Subhash Mukherjee, the creator of Durga and his suicide depicted as a movie Ek Doctor Ki Maut speaks of our approach to new groundbreaking research.
If we had denied ourselves the technology of test-tube babies, today so many families would have been suffering. We need to ponder whether we should use ethics as a tool to block great science appropriate.
Another important delay occurred in hCG vaccine developed in India by Dr G.P. Talwar in the 1970s and the ’80s whose phase-I and II trials were conducted. Instead of encouraging improvement in its efficacy from 60-80 per cent to 90 per cent for fertility control its further trials were stopped till 2006 due to ill-informed criticism.
But are we also treading dangerously, getting too close to the job of creation and engendering dire, unforeseen consequences beyond our control?
Designer babies technology definitely has its pros and cons and can be used for wrong purposes. But is this not true for all new technologies? Are we not getting too close to interfering with the lifecycle when we provide treatment for various diseases, do a heart or brain surgery, a blood transfusion, or removal of a tumour? We now accept even a robotic surgery for our benefit.
We also should be careful about blocking science and harassing scientists using ethics as a tool which finally ends up in losing a Nobel Prize for test-tube baby for India.
Today we can say test-tube baby technology is ethical, fine and safe after 40 years of the birth of Lousie Brown or Durga.
Although the claim of He Jiankui’s gene-edited baby has been said to be premature, the need of the hour is not to ban research on creation of gene-edited babies, but to create a well-regulated international ethical guideline with stringent adherence to these rules for creation of gene-edited babies. Instead of isolating He Jiankui, the scientific fraternity should assess the procedure and guidelines followed by him, identify loopholes and enable him to polish the technology.
Gene editing can be extremely helpful in treating heritable diseases for which no treatment is known. Time only can tell whether it is safe and ethical to create gene-edited babies. But in the meantime we have the responsibility of supporting this new technology so that it can be refined to prevent off-target mutations and finally used for society’s benefit within the frameworks of stringent guidelines.
(The author is senior scientist at RGCB, Thiruvananthapuram. Views expressed are personal.)