The scientific news of the week has a Chinese name, He Jiankui, the scientist who has announced the birth of the first girls edited genetically Read in Matter a broad follow-up of the case, including the almost unanimous criticism of the scientific community, which considers that the experiment – if confirmed – is premature, insecure and ethically questionable. There is a voice, however, that has preferred to maintain a more receptive point of view. He is only one, but his qualification is unbeatable: George Church, of the University of Harvard, one of the pioneers of the genomic editing technique (CRISPR) that has used the Chinese laboratory, and also one of the most outstanding scientists for promoting the ethical debate about it.
Church knew He's data before he presented them at a Hong Kong congress on Friday. This surely means that it is one of the reviewers of the manuscript that I have sent to "a high-impact journal", without specifying which one. Maybe be Science, whose website Church has granted an interview. Harvard geneticist believes that the main issue is whether this is a case of Jesse Gelsinger, a young man who died in a gene therapy experiment in 1999, or a case of Louise Brown, the first child born by fecundation in vitro
One of the criticisms that He has received is that a moratorium has been missed on the genetic edition of the germ line (the cells that give rise to the ovules and sperm, and whose modification is transmitted therefore to the following generations). Church, which contributed decisively to promote that moratorium, adopts a tolerant position: "A moratorium is not a prohibition forever." Even admits that girls can show mosaicism (a mixture of normal and modified cells) and mutations off target (out of the target), but he knows that there can never be zero risk of these things, and defends He for pushing forward. "As long as the girls are normal and healthy, things will be fine for the field and for the family."
Another source of criticism of He is the gene he has chosen to edit. It's called CCR5, and it's the main receptor for the AIDS virus in lymphocytes, the gateway that allows it to enter these defensive cells and destroy the immune system. People who have that gene inactivated naturally are protected against HIV infection, even if they are exposed to repeated and massive doses of the virus, such as some African prostitutes. This raises another ethical question, because it is not clear whether eliminating that gene in girls is to cure a disease or improve the lineage. The first will always find less resistance than the second.
While the sky was falling on him, He has announced a third pregnancy with an embryo published in the same way. It is not very clear that this man can be stopped, and there are even people who do not think it is worth doing. While everything goes well.