Lluís Montoliu had been listening to "rumors" for months that there were already genetically-edited children in China. Yesterday, this 55-year-old Barcelona biologist felt "chills" when he saw the video in which the scientist He Jiankui announces "with a messianic tone" the birth of two twin sisters with an inactivated gene to make them immune to infection by the AIDS virus. Montoliu, a researcher at the National Biotechnology Center and founding president of the International Society for Transgenic Technologies, uses the CRISPR technique to create mice with rare diseases similar to humans, such as albinism. In your opinion, still there are too many risks unknown as to apply the tool to human embryos for therapeutic purposes. In the case of China, moreover, it is not an application to treat a hereditary disease. The embryos were healthy. It is, Montoliu regrets, an alleged attempt at genetic improvement of the human species.
Question. What do you think of He Jiankui's announcement?
Answer. We must maintain skepticism and assume that we still do not know if what they tell us has really happened. We have already eaten many news from China that we have had to correct or retract. More than a scientific communication, it looks like an advertisement for some of the companies of this researcher, who has companies and therefore has interests in this regard. Legitimate, but interests after all. This Tuesday begins a world congress of genetic publishing in Hong Kong. What better sounding board. He has achieved a huge publicity campaign and now he will have tremendous queues of couples who will request this genetic editing process.
"A Pandora's box has been opened, it's a colossal irresponsibility"
P. Is it ethical?
R. A Pandora's box has been opened. It is a colossal irresponsibility. It is not an issue to cure. It is a genetic improvement. The next step is a total eugenics. They will tell the parents: "What do you want?" The ban has been opened, which is what we did not want to happen, but it has happened where we knew it would happen: in China. It must be clearly stated that this experiment is illegal in our country and it is also illegal in many other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, where genetic editing of embryos in research is possible, but not their implementation [en una madre].
P. What will those girls be like?
R. The most normal thing is that they are mosaic girls, with different genetic codes in their cells. It is absolutely irresponsible. After 20 or 30 years they may develop an autoimmune disease, in which the defenses of their organism attack their own cells. And the changes in these girls will be passed on to their children. The bioethical impact transcends girls. Chinese researchers have created a new line of humans, strictly speaking. The message you are sending is terrible. There will be more people who want to inactivate this gene to their children. The authors have crossed two red lines: a genetically engineered human embryo has been implanted and gestated. And, in addition, the application is of genetic improvement, it is not therapeutic.
"The next step is total eugenics, they will tell parents: What do you want?"
P. Is there any way to avoid these experiments in humans?
R. This year we launched in Paris the Association for Responsible Research and Innovation in Genetic Edition (ARRIGE, for its acronym in English). We have joined Unesco. One of our proposals is to promote international governance, but we are aware that it is very difficult. There are few treaties that have a global significance, regardless of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maybe it's time to make an international treaty to regulate the genetic edition. What seems to have happened in China would require the availability of international legislation.
P. What could go wrong in the case of China?
R. The inactivation of a gene through genetic editing, through CRISPR, is the simplest application of all. Despite this, one of the twin sisters seems to have the two copies of the gene inactivated, while the other sister only has one of the two copies inactivated, the researcher admits. It amazes me that I recognize it without problem. This shows his inability to control the system. I would ask this researcher to tell us exactly what he did and how, so that we could assess the impact of the experiment.