Après nous le déluge

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

You can always blame the Chinese.

See also A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification (Baltimore et al.) and Germ line editing and human evolution.

Science: Embryo engineering alarm

… In 1975, the Asilomar conference center hosted a meeting where molecular biologists, physicians, and lawyers crafted guidelines for research that altered the DNA of living organisms. Now, scientists are calling for another Asilomar—this time to discuss the possibility of genetically engineered human beings.

… Rumors are rife, presumably from anonymous peer reviewers, that scientists in China have already used CRISPR on human embryos and have submitted papers on their results. They have apparently not tried to establish any pregnancies, but the rumors alarm researchers who fear that such papers, published before broad discussions of the risks and benefits of genome editing, could trigger a public backlash that would block legitimate uses of the technology.

… But scientists don’t yet understand all the possible side effects of tinkering with germ cells or embryos. Monkeys have been born from CRISPR-edited embryos, but at least half of the 10 pregnancies in the monkey experiments ended in miscarriage. In the monkeys that were born, not all cells carried the desired changes, so attempts to eliminate a disease gene might not work. The editing can also damage off-target sites in the genome.

Those uncertainties, together with existing regulations, are sufficient to prevent responsible scientists from attempting any genetically altered babies, says George Church, a molecular geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Although he signed the Science commentary, he says the discussion “strikes me as a bit exaggerated.” He maintains that a de facto moratorium is in place for all technologies until they’re proven safe. “The challenge is to show that the benefits are greater than the risks.”

… Although many European countries ban germline genetic engineering in humans, the United States and China do not have such laws. Research with private funds is subject to little oversight in the United States, although any attempts to establish a pregnancy would need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In China, any clinical use is prohibited by the Ministry of Health guidelines, but not by law.

… Church hopes such discussions will tackle a question that he says both commentaries avoid: “What is the scenario that we’re actually worried about? That it won’t work well enough? Or that it will work too well?”

Enrico Fermi (speaking about atomic weapons): Once basic knowledge is acquired, any attempt at preventing its fruition would be as futile as hoping to stop the earth from revolving around the sun.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.