Gene editing: Is it ethically sound?

When we think about the rise of medical technology, especially when it comes to advancing the health and wellbeing of our world’s children, we almost immediately think of the positives. New methods to fight against cancer for sick children. The race to cure HIV/AIDS. Medical imaging improvements to better detect human disease. However, a recent topic within the arena of medical technology has caused immense controversy and debate in recent years: gene editing.

Recently, a researcher in China claimed to successfully conduct gene editing on two twin baby girls.The researcher claims to have involved seven different families in the gene editing process during fertility treatment, with the twins being the first to have been born. The researcher states that he is not attempting to change or alter existing genes or inherited diseases, but rather only inputting a trait that would help prevent or “resist” HIV infection.

Although the idea of gene editing or “genome editing” is certainly interesting due to its novelty, the researcher’s claims brought a wide range of criticism and doubts within the scientific community. Gene editing is in fact banned in 40 countries, including the U.S. Concerns of safety are also rampant--for instance, there is concern for incorrectly editing a non-targeted gene, causing reverberating and unintentional effects for the genome (or the entire set of genes in a living organism). In addition, in spite of the large advances in genetics science in the last century, there is insufficient  research to show how the editing of certain singular genes can impact the expression of or interaction with other genes. Some experts also call gene editing as “human experimentation”, while others claim the “justifiability” of gene editing when it comes to resisting major healthcare threats such as HIV, in this researcher’s case.

When it comes to research on humans, three ethical principles are expected to be universally followed, as per the Belmont Report: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. The justice component involves “fairness in distribution” of research’s benefits. There is some concern of whether gene editing will only be accessible to those that can afford such technology. This may lead to further gaps in equity for children and adults alike, while also potentially creating new “classes” of people based on their genome modifications.

Although this researcher’s experimentation in China is part of a larger debate on the ethics of gene editing, one thing is for certain: advances in science and research must be monitored, regulated, and evaluated so harm is minimized and the potential benefits are maximized for individuals.