Nov 29, 2018

Gene editing moves into a frightening new stage

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The possibility that babies from genetically edited embryos may have been born in China has pushed the science into a frightening new stage. It has become more real, even if scientists don't think it should be done in this way.

Why it matters: If nothing else, the scientific world is now talking more seriously about the implications of gene editing embryos than they did when it was just a prospect.

The international reaction has been mostly outrage.

  • He Jiankui, the scientist who claims he edited and implanted the embryos that resulted in a twin birth earlier this month, spoke earlier this week at a symposium in Hong Kong about how and why he decided to buck international guidelines from the U.S. and the U.K. on experimenting with editing embryos.
  • He stirred even more dismay when he mentioned the possibility of a second pregnancy.

Between the lines: Not everyone viewed it as a complete disaster. In fact, some scientists are ready to move ahead.

  • Harvard Medical School's George Daley suggested at the conference in Hong Kong that it's time to reconsider the massive amounts of research that was done over the past three years since the international guidance was created.
  • "Just because the first steps into a new technology are missteps doesn't mean we shouldn't step back, restart and think about a plausible" method of moving forward, Daley said.

What they're saying: There are concerns about the safety and efficacy of editing genes in adults, and editing embryos raises an even bigger ethical concern: The genetic changes and all the unknowns around them can be passed down to future generations.

  • Patrick David Hsu of the Salk Institute tells Axios, "This is bad, irresponsible science."
  • Eric Topol of Scripps Research Translational Institute says: "This was the fear — that someone, someday, would do something before it was ready. ... But, for the most part, there was international consensus that we were not ready."
  • National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins made it clear on Twitter that he wants to slow it down: "The need for development of binding international consensus on setting limits for this kind of research, now being debated in Hong Kong, has never been more apparent. Without such limits, the world will face the serious risk of a deluge of similarly ill-considered and unethical projects."

What to watch: Scientists are cautious about predicting what the impact will be, in part because the details of this claim are thin. The way medical ethicist Jonathan Moreno from the University of Pennsylvania talks about it illustrates the conflict: He's aware of its potential to change the trajectory of science, but also skeptical that this particular experiment is real.

  • Moreno says the situation reminds him of other times in history where there were tremors in the science world, like the death of 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger in 1999 from a gene therapy trial that led to years of diminished research.
  • "I think it could be a huge event, like the Gelsinger death ... especially if there really is a third baby. On the other hand, he hasn't [published] anything, so we can't be sure."

The bottom line: The alarm over what could be next is real. Moreno says there's concern it could hinder current research projects, and Hsu says there's hope it may spur more needed transparency in research. But the science is moving forward, and we're all going to have to grapple with what's next.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Coronavirus spreads to more countries, and South Korea ups its case count

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

The novel coronavirus continues to spread to more nations, and the U.S. reports a doubling of its confirmed cases to 34 — while noting those are mostly due to repatriated citizens, emphasizing there's no "community spread" yet in the U.S. South Korea's confirmed cases jumped from 204 on Friday to 433 on Saturday.

The big picture: COVID-19 has now killed at least 2,362 people and infected more than 77,000 others, mostly in mainland China. New countries to announce infections recently include Israel, Lebanon and Iran.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 16 mins ago - Health

Centrist Democrats beseech 2020 candidates: "Stand up to Bernie" or Trump wins

Bernie Sanders rallies in Las Vegas, Nevada on Feb. 21. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Center-left think tank Third Way urgently called on the Democratic front-runners of the 2020 presidential election to challenge Sen. Bernie Sanders on the South Carolina debate stage on Feb. 25, in a memo provided to Axios' Mike Allen on Saturday.

What they're saying: "At the Las Vegas debate ... you declined to really challenge Senator Sanders. If you repeat this strategy at the South Carolina debate this week, you could hand the nomination to Sanders, likely dooming the Democratic Party — and the nation — to Trump and sweeping down-ballot Republican victories in November."

Situational awareness

Warren Buffett. Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage

Catch up on today's biggest news:

  1. Warren Buffett releases annual letter, reassures investors about future of Berkshire Hathaway
  2. Greyhound bars immigration sweeps
  3. U.S. military officially stops offensive operations in Afghanistan
  4. America's future looks a lot like Nevada
  5. Centrist Democrats beseech 2020 candidates: "Stand up to Bernie" or Trump wins