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CRISPR-baby scientist fired by university (nature.com)
76 points by jbsimpson 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments



I feel like this turns babies into technology. We might have version 1 where babies aren't likely to get HIV or some other malady. Next round, perhaps we'll see more height, different skin color, increased intelligence. If it's like any other product, it appears babies would be coming out of a factory and with tiers for different features you can buy based on your purchasing power. Sort of like buying an iPhone except with babies.

Commercializing children doesn't seem right, but then should the technology be held back and children be damned to suffer for the sake of keeping the status quo? Is there a just way to deal with this?


Okay, let's get this silly sci-fi trope out the way. Genetics doesn't work like that.

We don't have a clue how to edit DNA to make people smarter or taller or stronger. And there's no sign that we're going to get to that knowledge sometime this century.

Furthermore, what we do know about our genome and our proteome strongly suggests that lots of stuff are doing double-duty. The gene that causes sickle cell anemia also provides antimalarial resistance. That makes the argument for changing DNA one way or the other much more difficult to make.

And, furthermore, even applying CRISPR to human cells is still not exactly successful yet. Of the two CRISPR babies, one was mosaic (i.e., the edits didn't reach all the cells) and the other was heterozygous (i.e., didn't reach both copies of DNA), and neither actually contained the desired deletion. So all the ethics violations were in pursuit of a project that would have scored at best a C (just to underscore how much of a monster He was).


You could be right, but I think you're being a bit pessimistic. We're nowhere near fine-tuning complex traits like intelligence and strength, but I could see it happening within all of our lifetimes.


I wish you were right, but I have my doubts. Some people familiar with writing software think the DNA is some type of very long program written in some unknown language. If only we could decipher the language. In reality, there is no language. The genes are recipes to build some nano-machines (the proteins). That's it. Some of us posses a certain version of a protein, some posses another one. Everything is emergent properties. It's like positing the rules for a "game of life". You can't tell from the rules what emergent behavior you'll see. You need to run the game. Evolution does just that, it runs the game. Some codes survive, some don't. There is no language of the genetic code.

For us to fine tune inteligence or strength, we need to be able to predict lots and lots of layers of emerging properties. Or simply to find ways to run the game many, many times. We can't run the game by experimenting with babies. Will we be able to run the game on a computer? I'm not holding my breath on this one.


We cant even do the 3-body problem; it's -trivial- but still not a closed solution.

We seem to be good at coming up with approximations and ways to exert selection pressure.. but when we let our digital approximations go analog/realware, the results are difficult to use... http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.50....


I wouldn't call that pessimistic. Fine-tuning traits like intelligence, strength, height, etc are in my opinion the thing that's going to lead to designer babies. The longer we stay away from that, the better.

I can certainly see the case for fixing genetic defects, though as the sickly cell/malaria example shows, that's not always clear cut either. And even if you just fight genetic defects, if it's only available to the rich, it's going to create a genetic class system where the rich literally have better genes than the poor. I shudder to think what that might do to a society.


Well, I was referring to what might happen, not what should happen. Regardless of how you or I feel about the subject, designer babies are pretty much inevitable.


>We don't have a clue how to edit DNA to make people smarter or taller or stronger. And there's no sign that we're going to get to that knowledge sometime this century.

iterated embryo selection for those traits is at most 10-15 years away, though i suspect much closer


You suspect wrong. The time it takes to ascertain the, say, intelligence of an iteration is just too long. The OP is right, this sort of thing is, best case, a century long study.


The worst part is that by the time they were in Kindergarten, the newer models would obsolete them.

Bigger, faster, stronger, and MUCH smarter! Now 10% off!


In an alternate universe where Apple produces babies, they'll eventually become so thin they'll snap and bend if you look at them funny.


And they are full of bugs that Apple refuses to fix.


That wouldn't be this scientists fault. We shouldn't blame the researchers, but should blame the people who wield the technology. We can't blame the guy who invented the firearm for every death related to firearms. Plus, he explicitly states here how he is against that future: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th0vnOmFltc&app=desktop

Whether or not humans are responsible to equip technology is not really a concern to people who are advancing science, and maybe it shouldn't be.


I wonder if a new version, new advancement would be a terror for everyone else. They'd drop a social step, can't do things, less needed, etc.

The movie Gattaca explored this a bit. People in the film are heavily defined by their engineering. They might not BE just engineered, but being superior, or inferior is all encompassing. It becomes all they are.

In the film it is a bit of a curse even for the best. Jerome failed (got a silver medal) at something and can't recover. His medal only turns to gold at the very end.


Gattaca didn't explore actual superiority of genetically engineered humans. It was mostly about a guy cheating his way through through a surveillance state that openly discriminates against humans with inferior genes. The scary aspect was that everyone blindly trusted the gene scanner to be infallible (proven wrong by the protagonist). Whether the scanner was based on genetics, machine learning or your eye color didn't actually matter to the story.


> The scary aspect was that everyone blindly trusted the gene scanner to be infallible (proven wrong by the protagonist).

It's been a while since I've seen the movie but the protagonist didn't prove that the gene scanner could fail. He just cheated his way through it by using a health person's DNA evidence.

In fact, the final(?) scene of the movie proved the exact opposite of your claim. Again, it's been a while, but I believe the protagonist was just about to board the rocket when he was surprised by one final DNA scan and as he didn't expect it to be there he knew he couldn't cheat through it. It was heavily implied, if not told to us, that the person who operated the scanner saw the scan report and should have turned him away if he followed protocol, but he let the protagonist through anyway. I wanna say the scanner person quipped about how the protagonist must have been qualified if he could go through the training program with his non-GMO'd genes.

The movie isn't about a surveillance state. It was about a hypothetical future where nobody was conceived naturally anymore. Everybody was conceived with pre-selected genes which I imagine improved physical and mental prowess while also eliminating deadly diseases and defects. The protagonist was naturally conceived and as a consequence he had eyesight problems and I want to say asthma as well. I had the impression that they didn't want to accept astronauts with say asthma because they would rather just not have to deal with that problem to begin with.


Perhaps I’m misremembering the film, but I don’t think anything was proven wrong in the film? ISTR it was always understood that the genetic evaluation gave a measured “chance” of this or that, but that society had decided that people with bad chances weren’t even worth the risk of being a bad investment.


What about Jerome?

He wasn't a bit character.


Many people have trouble communicating with the younger generation because they have their own ways and use technology more intuitively.

Now imagine the generational gap if the youth is 20% smarter than their parents.


I'm 26 right now and I'm not planning to have kids until I'm 35 for this exact reason. I don't want my kid to say: "Daddy, why do other kids have disease resistance and I don't? Do you not love me? Or were you one of those stupid anti-CRISPRers who don't believe in science (the anti-vaxxers of the next decades)?"

I'd rather wait for 5-10 years to make sure I don't make a lifelong mistake.


Frankly the technology is not 5-10 years away. Decades, plural. I'd be surprised if we saw it used as a reproductive aid to correct severe hereditary genetic disorders in the next 5-10 years, and we won't see it used for optional modifications until we have twenty or thirty years of experience from the "better than the alternatives" modifications that the techniques aren't just creating massive amounts of cancer.


Every year you wait, your sperms carry more and more mutations.


Sperm frozen in a foreign cryobank since 2017


Nice. (Why foreign?)


It's cheaper.


That's easily fixed: freeze your sperms. A bit pricey, but not nearly as much as a baby, CRISPR or otherwise.


For those wondering, this guy's reply came first. He called it!


I did the same thing with my last computer. I waited years because something better was just around the corner.


Don’t wait too long, reproductive tissue begins to degrade in your 30s.


Source?



5-10 years for this stuff to pass FDA approval? Better luck with your grandkids instead.


中国更快


It's ok and good thing if the results is only positive like "Bigger, faster, stronger, and MUCH smarter". (Maybe not include Bigger?)

The worst part of this is that it may not safe. If this introduced some flaws in the babies gene, how to control this, don't allow them have babies?


Please rethink that it's a good world where positive genetic traits can be added to babies - in a world where this is common, you or your kids would be in unfair competition with genetically superior people simply because their parents are rich. And the poor would be, for the first time in history, objectively inferior.

Yes, kids with rich parents are already at advantage - just wait to see what genetic superiority does to that divide.


On one hand, I kinda agree with you.

On the other hand, I usually stop and inspect myself whenever my reasoning that something is bad is not because it hurts me, but because I can't accept to see others improve.

Good rule of thumb is that people should have the freedom to do anything as long as it doesn't violate other people's right. How does a rich family violate poor family's right by making their rich baby better?


> Good rule of thumb is that people should have the freedom to do anything as long as it doesn't violate other people's right.

On the micro-economics scale, I would not only agree with you, but argue that a successful society depends on it. Just as you should be allowed to participate in whatever harmless recreational activities you like at your own home, so should you be able to keep for yourself anything you've made or earned. Without these freedoms, people lose their incentives to be productive members of society.

However, this breaks down on the macro scale when feedback loops get out of control. Monopolies, duopolies and the like are pretty accepted as bad for economic growth because they have the resources to crush competition and have total control over markets. But monopolies are often just the result of a company that was first to market, had economies of scale, entrenched themselves through legislation, maintained an established brand, and had other feedback loops to strengthen themselves.

Just as we break up monopolies to give competition a chance, we should be working hard to break feedback loops that enforce hierarchy of classes so we can give everyone a chance to be successful or fail on their own.

The parent comment is correct that genetically engineered babies would likely be a mechanism for the socio-economically powerful to entrench their status further. It's not necessarily an argument for outright banning CRISPR babies, but giving more power to rich families absolutely does harm poor families by putting the poor families at a competitive disadvantage.


> Just as we break up monopolies to give competition a chance, we should be working hard to break feedback loops that enforce hierarchy of classes so we can give everyone a chance to be successful or fail on their own.

Mmm...with respect to enforced/entrenched class hierarchies you argue that we should break them up. That looks good on paper but when it comes down to it many parents/families who are smart do their utmost to give their children a leg up. Is this not legitimate? Isn't this, generally speaking, how families that have retained status/prosperity across generations?


Just to clarify, I said to break feedback loops that enforce class hierarchy. I agree that parents/families should do their utmost to give their children a leg up, but the game also needs to be fair for all players.

Take universities for example. They're not-for-profit institutions that are dedicated to the pure advancement of knowledge. They're a purely good thing. But as the job market required workers of higher skill and knowledge, and as colleges became a necessity for anyone pursuing a sustainable career, tuition prices rose massively. Wealthy families can still afford university tuition and still have all the opportunities that come with, whereas poor families who don't earn scholarships are left with fewer options.

So universities--which still are a purely good thing--have now enabled a feedback loop for furthering the gap between rich and poor. The solution would never be to break up universities, but to break their role in this feedback loop (by, for example, making them not a prerequisite for employment, or by enabling more universal access).

Likewise, I fear for a future where genetically engineered super humans exist, where they are only born of families who can afford it, where employers will hire with exceeding prejudice in favor of people born this way, where universities will likewise favor people like this, and where the rest of humanity gets left out.


> On the other hand, I usually stop and inspect myself whenever my reasoning that something is bad is not because it hurts me, but because I can't accept to see others improve.

Good point. Not many are as clear thinking as you. The one point against this kind of manipulation is that I'm not sure we can predict all the potential consequences. By altering the genes of a few individuals we may incur unintended consequences in generations to come. So whilst we may not personally suffer from the guy next door giving siring to "superior" children there may be trouble a few generations down the line. Perhaps I'm overly pessimistic...


Thing is that any society that hesitates on adopting genetic engineering out of some fear of exacerbating income inequality or whatever is going to lose out in the long run to any civilization that has no such ethical hangups about genetic engineering. It's a prisoner's dilemma.


Remove IP laws, copy all the best tech from everywhere, and make it availible to everyone possible. Not sure how that will necessarily lose to a small number of the rich hoarding access.


This rides on the assumption that the benefits of genetic engineering will outweigh the detriments of income inequality


Dna is just information. Can you point me in the direction of the universe where information is easy to hide and control?

Look how easy information spreads now. Github, Wikipedia, music, YouTube, etc. You think dna is easy to drm?


Bayer manages.

Monsanto sues

About 271,000 results (0.36 seconds)


I'd suppose governments with a socialised healthcare system would push and invest heavily if it means to lower the cost. Just like most (?) push for affordable medicine in one form or another.


I think that a newer generation having advantages over a previous one doesn't mean any improvement of our stature is forbidden.


Yes, if the time scales of the updates were spaced across generations. But I guess commercial availability of such technology would mean much shorter time scales leading to very bad consequences for the aging population. Eventually, perhaps leading events like one generation deciding to stop manufacturing babies. Could lead to scary consequences if not thought through...


Pros: The people born this way will lead happier, more fulfilling and productive lives.

Cons: Seems kinda weird to commercialize children.


Pros: The people born this way will lead happier, more fulfilling and productive lives.

Cons: Companies or powerful governments influenced the design and meaning of "happier, more fulfilling and productive lives" such that their own agenda is fulfilled.

Maybe that fate would not affect everyone, but what temptation there would be to make a designer workforce. The perfect employee. The perfect citizen. The perfect subordinate.


We already commercialize children with all toys, private school, video games.


There could be concern of breeding/creating a superrace by the rich, but historically people select for superficial traits - what is fashionable - as they do in dog-breeding. Or over-selecting for some narrow performance characteristic, as in racehorses.

It seems to me the just way is similar to how bread is legally required to be fortified with vitamins to avoid e.g. rickets. And how education is legally required. Beyond these community accepted minimums, knock yourself out.


I've read that He self-funded the project. Anyone know if he comes from wealth or how he got the funds to run a team of scientists? Also, it's interesting that he was a trained physicist who turned to gene modification experiments. Is CRISPR and gene editing the popular draw in academia and research? I've always assumed academics mainly stayed in their lane, so to speak.

As for the ethics, if gene editing research is inevitable and/or simple as claimed, then perhaps it should be carried out in public universities so as to prevent glory seeking people from causing unnecessary harm. Also, perhaps anyone who carries out gene editing should be held financially liable and even criminally liable for any damage to individuals.

If CRISPR and gene editing lives up to its hype, it feels like we are on the cusp of a brave new world.


Gene editing research is being carried out in public universities. It's not yet at the point where edited human embryos are carried to term.


A lot of private donors or individuals act as patrons for labs and even individual scientists or artists. Don’t see why a leading scientist in the field would have trouble attracting this funding.


> The investigation also found that He’s experiment ran counter to national regulations forbidding people with HIV from using assisted reproduction — an allegation reported for the first time in the Xinhua article.

What is the rationale behind this regulation? Is it that the baby is likely to be infected with HIV or is there some other reason?


Well, if you want to dig more, I've found one regulation[0](technical standard rather) mentioning something maybe related. It says, I quote:

> 2、禁忌症

> (1)有如下情况之一者,不得实施体外受精-胚胎移植及其衍技术

> ① 男女任何一方患有严重的精神疾患、泌尿生殖系统急性感染、性传播疾病;

> ② 患有《母婴保健法[1]》规定的不宜生育的、目前无法进行胚胎植入前遗传学诊断的遗传性疾病;

> ...

Translated to English and overly sum up: IVF-ET is forbidden if:

1, The donor or the receptor is currently carrying STD (Or genitourinary infection, or severe mental illness);

2, The patient not recommended to be pregnant according to the 《母婴保健法[1]》(Mother and child health-care law);

3, The patient is suffering from hereditary diseases that cannot be diagnosed with Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis.

The rationale that you are curious about is still unknown here, but I do think this document and the law mentioned can be a good start if you want to figure it out. Sadly though, this field is far out of my range of knowledge, I can't even translate most of them for you (And That page on npc.gov.cn is still loading after 5 mins of waiting).

[0] http://www.moh.gov.cn/open/uploadfile/2005112816435508.doc (人类辅助生殖技术规范)

[1] http://www.npc.gov.cn/wxzl/gongbao/2000-12/05/content_500462... (母婴保健法)


I have no idea what their actual rationale is, but many STIs including HIV can be passed from mother to newborn.

With an intensive treatment regimen the risk can be made very low: https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv-aids/fact-sheets/...


>What is the rationale behind this regulation?

Unknown to me

>Is it that the baby is likely to be infected with HIV or is there some other reason?

With modern medicine the baby can survive birth without getting infected.


I know this is the current title of the article, but would it possible to entitled the article "He Jiankui (CRISPR-baby scientist) fired by university"? While I'll refrain from commenting on his work, he is a real person and has a name...


And yet, most people do not care.

The elephant in the room is, did the gene editing work? If yes, are those babies protected from HIV?

If yes...the world is not the same anymore.


Atrocious! Babies' interest in science should be supported, not squashed.


I normally prefer humor to stay on Reddit, but nice one.


Babies have the same interest in science as the rest of us, to be squashed or supported as required by various groups and institutions or human aspirations as might exist.


Given the age of the babies and CRISPR technology, how long before we find a rush of Olympic records suddenly broken by surprise athletes?


You mean, how long until the olympic records stop being important to society? There are many things that were made obsolete by technology. Exerting human strength for sport may be made obsolete, and that wouldn't be a bad thing.


translation: the experiment didn't work so China is disavowing him. This would have played out differently if he had succeeded I would be willing to bet.


Direct gene editing was invented about 45 years ago. I am surprised, even shocked, that no one tried this until now. CRISPR has certainly made it easier to do, but other techniques have existed since the 70s.

He Jiankui is being vilified now, but I wonder how history will remember him (if at all)


It has certainly been tried before, but in secret or without publicity.

He Jiankui is being fired for publicly announcing his experiment and the subsequent backlash (mostly deserved) from his peers.


I am not at all opposed to the idea of gene editing, but I wonder if the issue here isn't that he didn't have proper medical authorization to do this. Most countries have laws against cowboy medicine for a reason.


If you seek medical authorization, you will find that no one will approve it


Because it will most likely lead to inhumane atrocities that would turn the general public against the technology for a generation


This anti-science stance is one based on fear, and that's not how society advances. Nothing should be banned from experiment and testing in controlled labs. Banning things preemptively out of fear is a sorry display of hubris. We do not know what technologies will be good or bad until we research and try them.


My perspective is an attempt to save this branch of research from annihilation in the public eye. This type of alteration of human beings is a supremely sensitive subject. Women are hardly permitted abortions in peace without bringing down political hell on them. What makes you think this research would not attract similar or worse scrutiny unless it is conducted with a degree of caution that would be excessive in any other endeavor?


We'd never have developed vaccines with that attitude, though. The Precautionary Principle sounds great in theory, but it's a recipe for permanent stasis.


This isn't the precautionary principle, which is much more extreme. This is recognizing that "move fast and break things" is not a good idea in medicine.

One major foul up with human gene editing and the technology will be banned for at least a generation. Think about that.


Does anybody really believe that China is upholding strong ethical standards here? Sure the uni dumped this guy, but I'd assume there is a large project that the government is at minimum aware of to edit genes.


Maybe many countries have similar secret projects.... but obviously public projects are not allowed.


There are of course worse projects. He was just unlucky that the government made an example of him. Still, probably people in Chinese healthcare research will be more careful from now on probably.


It doesn't really need strong ethical standards here. This scientist received almost universal criticism in China.


I really thought China would take a lesser stance on this publically. This ordeal is surprising in a sense that they are going to have a real health crisis in the next 25 years along with population issue.




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