Gene-edited babies: research gone astray?

After the birth of the world's first genetically edited babies criticism of Chinese scientist He Jiankui continues. Europe's media fear unpredictable medical risks and warn of a future in which the genetic makeup of a child depends on its parents' incomes.

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El País (ES) /

A suspect medical breakthrough

The British gene researcher Joyce Harper doubts that He Jiankui could keep the risks of gene manipulation under control. In she writes:

“The two most important aspects are the so-called genetic mosaic, a dysfunction in which the edited DNA isn't present in each cell of the embryo, and off-target effects, which happen when other parts of the genetic material are unintentionally altered, with unforeseeable consequences. Before gene manipulation becomes a medical procedure it is essential that scientists first solve these two problems. ... It is very important to confirm whether He Jiankui really did eliminate the mosaic and the off-target effects. But it's certainly surprising that he didn't publish anything on this.”

NRC Handelsblad (NL) /

A risky experiment on human beings

NRC Handelsblad believes the time is not ripe for such an experiment:

“He Jiankui did as he pleased without caring about the medical or ethical consensus. ... If safety was guaranteed, there would be no objections to repairing hereditary diseases. But there are alternative methods. ... For example the selection of healthy embryos, which is already being done. This too may have disadvantages, and in the long term genetic editing may be more effective. But we don't know yet. ... As long as their safety isn't guaranteed such experiments are undesirable.” (HU) /

This would lead to a divided society

Where is the dividing line between interventions that make sense from a medical point of view and medical design? asks

“If there were a scale, where would the disabling of the genes responsible for weight gain or insomnia be on that scale? Even with corresponding rules we could easily go too far and start producing designer babies. ... This in turn could become a social problem. It would be an expensive medical service that only few could afford. The differences within society would grow. What a utopia: the children of the rich would be beautiful, clever and fit while the offspring of the poor would still have to struggle with disease and inferior abilities.”

La Repubblica (IT) /

A violation of medical ethics

Alberto Mantovani, scientific director of the Istituto Clinico Humanitas in Milan, denounces the form and content of the announcement in La Repubblica:

“I am appalled by the method, because you don't announce an event like this which requires a critical evaluation by the scientific community on Youtube. I am also appalled by the content. Because we have to ask ourselves what purpose inactivating a gene in an embryo can serve when we can protect ourselves against the disease it causes both through our lifestyle and by using a condom during sexual intercourse. If what was written corresponds to the truth I consider it a violation of medical ethics and the Hippocratic Oath. I therefore hope that the Chinese authorities will adopt the appropriate measures.”

El Mundo (ES) /

A state that doesn't respect life

El Mundo suspects business interests are behind the scientist's experiment:

“The implications are particularly grave in the case of He Jiankui, who owns several biotechnological companies that could benefit from this. ... Science cannot back investigations of this type because scientific practices that don't serve life without a shadow of doubt are ethically unacceptable. When humans began to disassociate technology from morality in the 20th century, they created a hell. ... China has demonstrated that it is a state that lacks even the most minimum respect for life and human rights.”

Der Tagesspiegel (DE) /

Gene-editing shouldn't be demonised

Those voicing outrage out of habit fail to see the opportunities offered by genetic engineering, Der Tagesspiegel admonishes:

“Yes, this is a breach of taboo which in theological terms can also be criticised as the death of creation. But its potential for reducing human suffering also deserves to be thrown into the equation. A mature moral judgement requires a nuanced approach. Alterations in genes are one of the most basic building blocks of evolution: the concept of an eternally unchanging human genome is false. What's worrying here isn't the fact that genes are being altered, but that it is humans who are altering them. But even nature hasn't optimised our genes, otherwise there would be no hereditary diseases. In the final analysis, whether humans or nature do a better job of altering our genes is still an open question.”