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Many doubts about the genetically edited baby incident remain unclear
In November 2018, a pair of genetically edited twin girls named Lulu and Nana were born healthy in China. Reported that the twins after a gene modification, so that they were born naturally resistant to AIDS, and this is the worlds first immune AIDS gene editor baby. He Jiankui, an associate professor at Shenzhen Southern University of Science and Technology, is behind the scenes the knife manipulator of the gene editing babies.
Once the news was released, it caused a tremendous shock. He Jiankuis behavior was strongly condemned by scientists. Gene editing has also led to the discussion and controversy on human ethics and life safety issues, such as whether artificial man is allowed or not, and whether it will become superman dominating the society of ordinary people in the future.
However, in the past two months, there has been no disclosure of any progress except for the previous media reports that the health sector has intervened in the investigation. Recently, a reporter from Beijing Youth Daily interviewed Shao Feng, an insider and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the field of life science research, in an attempt to explore the scientific significance of the event and its underlying factors.
Prior to this, Shao Feng once spoke about the gene editing incident, believing that the technology has no scientific innovation, only breakthroughs in ethics and morality without a bottom line, and urgently needs a clear legal and ethical boundary, and hoped that the relevant departments should deal with this legislation.
The factors behind gene editing events are complex
Beiqing Daily: What is the follow-up progress of the event of gene editing? Why cant the public feel it anymore?
Shao Feng: As far as I know, it is still under investigation. The final result will be issued by the health administration according to the procedure.
Beiqing Daily: Why is this so difficult to deal with?
Shao Feng: Because this process is not easy to investigate. First of all, He Jiankui is an associate professor of Nanke University, so how did the school let him carry out this gene editing experiment? After all, he was made up by a school. Where did the fund come from? Do the schools review committees at all levels know about this? Moreover, he had to cooperate with the hospital because he could not do artificial insemination himself. He can do gene editing, but he cant take sperm and eggs, so he must have a doctor to do it with him. So which hospital or which hospitals are involved? So hospitals also have ethics committees, how to review and pass? These doubts are not yet clear and need to be given a responsible account to the public after a solid investigation.
Beiqing Daily: Even if the results of the investigation are found, there is no legal basis for ethics in this regard. What kind of treatment can be achieved?
Shaofeng: Anyway, what legal basis we should take in the end must be investigated first. We must investigate the causes and consequences of this matter first. In all aspects involved, schools, hospital participants, students and local supervisors, including volunteers, must be investigated. We have to figure this out before we decide what to do. For such acts as gene editing, the Health and Planning Commission also has regulations, such as if the university should expel the person in violation of such regulations. But its certainly not appropriate to dismiss people without a clear investigation.
Beiqing Daily: Apart from dismissal, will there be more serious consequences?
Shao Feng: It depends on whether there are any other links in the process to find the corresponding legal basis. There is no judicial basis for this matter. But for example, if genetic editing is used for fertilized eggs, does it ultimately cause personal injury, for example, for those two girls, whether her genes have been artificially damaged, and whether the persons involved constitute the crime of intentional injury? There are legal provisions that can be dealt with accordingly, but at present there is no identification, and I dont know if it is possible to say so. This requires judicial interpretation and analysis by legal experts.
The best way to deal with it is to never let the two children know.
Beiqing Daily: Now the question is, as a gene editor, two children have been born. What should we do in the future?
Shao Feng: This is very, very difficult. Now the industry is also discussing whether it is necessary to pay a sum of money for the parents of the two children to live in places that nobody knows, and then the Department tracks them, just like installing GPS positioning. In fact, the biggest challenge is whether the two girls can get married in the future. If we want to get married, we will inherit our children.
Beiqing Daily: Do you think they are allowed to get married?
Shao Feng: There is no answer to this.
Beiqing Daily: What do you think is the best way to deal with it?
Shao Feng: To deal with this, I will never tell them that they are genetically edited and allow them to live like normal people. I think this is the best choice.
This case is not enough to affect the human gene pool.
Beiqing Daily: As an authoritative expert in the industry, what is your biggest concern about this matter?
Shao Feng: We are mainly concerned about two aspects of safety. One is that these two children may be unhealthy in the future, but we normal people will also have health problems, so if there is unhealthy, we can only face it by ourselves. Another security issue is what we call the impact on human populations, but this case is only a dot effect on the surface, and a small drop of water is not enough to change the whole pond.
Beiqing Daily: Why is it not enough to change the whole human gene pool?
Shao Feng: Because this case is not enough to have an impact on such a large population, this small point can not have a large-scale impact on the population. The next generation may have only one child and two children, which is only the influence of genes between generations and can only be passed down, because it is not an infectious disease, so this point will not cause the genetic impact of the entire population. When you put it in the whole gene pool, it dilutes immediately.
Beiqing Daily: So where is the greatest danger?
Shao Feng: Once the door of gene editing is opened, human beings will soon be finished. We know that there are more than 20,000 genes in the human body, and everything is determined by these genes. That is the so-called concept of DNA. The existing biotechnology can change it at will. You can change it whatever you want. It should be said that this is the most revolutionary technology in Biological Science in the past two or three decades. Any species can be changed, for example, if you want a dog to glow green, you can make it as long as its arms, you can do it at will. This technology is very powerful. But whats terrible is that a little trained person can do it in a laboratory. The threshold of this technology is very low. A person who masters this technology can do it with tens of thousands of dollars to buy some equipment.
Beiqing Daily: But there are already medical applications of gene editors abroad. What is the situation?
Shao Feng: Human beings have two kinds of cells, one is somatic cells, the other is germ cells. Simply put, all but sperm and eggs are somatic cells. Someone abroad is using gene editing technology to treat diseases, all of which are aimed at somatic cells. For example, some people are blind because of a mutation in a gene. Using this technology to edit cells in the eyes, some blindness may be able to restore vision. For example, what we do most now is muscle atrophy. We can restore bad genes in stem cells so that muscle will not atrophy. Foreign countries are pushing this thing. But it is forbidden to use this technology in sperm and eggs abroad, that is to say, it can not be done in germ cells. Because editing in somatic cells, if unsuccessful, muscular atrophy may at most lead to an arm failure. But if done in sperm eggs, the effect is passed down from generation to generation. Why is he Jiankui so terrible, because he did gene editing in the germ cells.
Beiqing Daily: You just said that gene editing technology is actually very easy to operate. Maybe a graduate student can do it. Is there anybody else doing it now?
Shao Feng: Its not easy for people to do this in Beijing. In universities like Peking University and Tsinghua, the ethics committee absolutely does not allow such behavior. Like our institute, we need to know that you do this, and youre fired immediately. In fact, there are ethics committees in schools and hospitals. At present, this incident is said to have happened in private hospitals. If it were in regular public hospitals, the ethics committee would surely not be able to pass. At present, it can only be said that there are no relevant provisions of the criminal law, but there are laws and regulations for the conduct of the industry. Just like our laboratory does superbacteria, if we make a supervirus, its easy, and the killing power is enormous. But there are laws and regulations in the medical field of scientific research, not that you can do any virus if you want to do it. Every research unit has an ethics committee that wont let you do these things.
Ethics Committee is a double-edged sword
Beiqing Daily: How much role can ethics committees play in such experiments?
Shao Feng: This is a problem. It is also a place where our scientific research and cultural system is not sound enough. In western countries, ethics committees have great power and are very strict. To what extent, for example, if you take a mouse as an experiment, before you do it, you need to clearly write down how many mice you use, when you take it, what kind of anatomy you do, and what kind of experiment you do. You need to be clear and clear, and give it to the ethics committee, which can approve it before you do it. Otherwise, the school can expel you, even if this is strict enough. The procedure for the second time has been approved. The next time we change the mouse into a mouse, we must go through the ethical process again and re-examine and approve any change.
Beiqing Daily: What is our country like?
Shao Feng: Now we are. There are ethics committees in our schools and hospitals. To do an experiment, we also need to do the ethical approval process. Our experiments do not involve human beings, but use animals to do experiments, so ethics is not as strict as the West.
Beiqing Daily: What if the censorship is tightened? Is it possible to avoid gene editing by requiring the highest specifications?
Shao Feng: This thing is actually a double-edged sword. Some unnecessary strict norms have an impact on research. Now we are building science and technology innovation centers. It is very important to improve the level of scientific research. As I know, the rule of Singapores mouse experiment is that no experiment can ultimately lead to the death of mice. To make mice die, it must be artificially promoted, but not directly caused by the experiment. But our country does not have this standard, mice die in the laboratory, because sometimes it is to see, this medicine I hit five, how many it will die, to do this statistics. But Singapore cant. It can only make a mouse die artificially when its dying. This is their ethical norm.
Beiqing Daily: Whats the difference? Is it the definition of ethics?
Shao Feng: Thats their ethical definition, but such a regulation has also caused some troubles for researchers. But thats the ethical rule. Its disciplined. So why do few foreign laboratories do experiments on primates such as chimpanzees and monkeys? Because primates are closest to humans, the ethical norms involved are higher, which limits you to do so.
Gene editors cant do it without establishing rules
Beiqing Daily: In the absence of norms, is it harmful to edit somatic cells genetically?
Shao Feng: This is not like the development of new drugs. For example, if we want to develop a cold medicine, this set of procedures is very mature, you have to step by step review. At present, gene editing of somatic cells is feasible in some western countries, but the process of gene therapy in China has not yet formed a set of norms. It is cell therapy. Such scientific and technological means are not like drugs. For example, drugs approved by the Drug Administration are safe. Our doctors can use drugs. But it is hard to say whether gene therapy has any effect. As a new thing, to establish a complete set of processes, it also requires professional people to cooperate in doing this thing. To be clear, because they are all new things, many people do not know how to fit. In other words, there are not enough professionals to set rules for this.
Beiqing Daily: What are your suggestions?
Shao Feng: Legislation without ethics will certainly not work. He Jiankuis Gene Edited Infant event is expected to promote Chinas life safety legislation. We have also written a report on the ethical legislation of biomedicine. Because once the door opens, its terrible.
Shao Feng, Academician of Chinese Academy of Sciences and Deputy Director of Beijing Institute of Life Sciences. Shao Feng led a team that led the world in the research of pathogenic bacteria invasion and human defense mechanism. It appeared frequently in three top international journals, Nature, Science and Cell. In 2016, Shao Feng wrote an open letter to the president of Hebei University of Science and Technology about the question of Han Chunyus genetic editing technology, suggesting that Hebei University of Science and Technology should start the investigation in accordance with international practice.
Source of this article: Gu Ying_NN6577, responsible editor of Beiqing Net-Beijing Youth Daily