Somewhere in the Great Beyond, Aldous Huxley must have been shaking his head and saying “I told you so” after Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of twin girls whose genes he claimed to have edited. If true, these are the first genetically engineered human babies. After creating the embryos via in vitro fertilization, He — known in the biotechnology research community by the initials JK — used the technology known as CRISPR to remove a gene associated with HIV infection, an alteration that the babies will pass to their children and their offspring through the generations.
If JK imagined himself to be on the fast track to a Nobel, it quickly became clear that the only visit he’s likely to make to Stockholm will be a personal vacation. Rather than bask in his peers’ applause, he was branded a “rogue” by fellow scientists. He had committed a cardinal sin in the biotech world, and it wasn’t so much the genetic alteration of the human germline. That has always been the ultimate goal of ongoing CRISPR research on human embryos, blessed, among others, by the influential National Academy of Sciences — an opinion to which JK pointed in his own defense. No, his great wrong was doing the inevitable deed rashly and prematurely, before the public had been properly anesthetized with soothing assurances from bioethicists that the moral, social, and safety implications of the technology have all been properly pondered. For example, George Daley, the dean of Harvard Medical School, argued in the wake of the announcement that scientists should continue to move into human germline engineering despite the furor unleashed by JK’s jumping the gun.
Even China’s Communist government recoiled — though given its infamous harnessing of the Internet to monitor its citizens’ every move, Beijing must have been aware of JK’s research beforehand. But after the uproar, official Chinese media accused JK of violating ethical rules and laws — awfully rich coming from a country that allows Falun Gong political prisoners to be tissue-typed before execution, with their organs sold to those with the money to jump the triage queue. JK may since have been arrested.
What are we to make of all this? At the very least, the JK mess exposed the folly of allowing the biotechnology-industrial complex to self-regulate. With technological prowess racing far ahead of existing government regulations, we are left relying on the self-restraint of researchers to follow the industry’s agreed-upon best practices. Of course, most researchers want to benefit science and help humanity, but some also yearn for the fame and fortune that come from announcing the next big biotechnological breakthrough. In the end, though, self-regulation is only as strong as the lowest common ethical denominator.
This should alarm us all. Researchers are conjuring with the most powerful technologies since the splitting of the atom. The CRISPR technique used by JK can inexpensively and easily alter any cell or organism on the planet. This could lead to breakthrough genetic treatments for cancer or other diseases and the eradication of some truly awful maladies. It could just as easily—by, say, altering a bird flu—cause a deadly pandemic or permanently alter the human genome in unforeseeable ways.
This brings to mind the political conflagration that erupted in 2001, when President George W. Bush imposed federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. No other domestic issue so dominated the Bush presidency. The media (and the Hollywood left) used stem cells as a cudgel to depict Bush as uncompassionately impeding treatments for the suffering and supposedly imposing his Christian faith on science policy. Much of the public swallowed the biotech sector’s mendacious hype about the immediate potential for embryonic stem cells to liberate children from wheelchairs and heal Grandpa’s Parkinson’s disease (neither of which is even close to actualization many years later). Meanwhile, biotechnologists were hagiographically depicted in media profiles as modern-day Galileos striving against irrational opposition to bring miraculous cures to a wounded world.
Ironically, Bush’s most controversial domestic policy was also one of his most successful. His policy focused attention on the moral importance of the human embryo, unleashing a burst of scientific creativity to find ways forward that would be less controversial but also medically efficacious. Those efforts bore fruit in the growth of the adult stem-cell sector and, most notably, the Nobel Prize-winning invention of induced pluripotent stem cells, a process that crafts embryonic-like stem cells from normal skin cells.
Unlike Bush, President Donald Trump has avoided engaging the portentous moral issues biotechnology forces upon us. He only recently recruited a White House science adviser and has shown zero interest in convening anything like a bioethics advisory commission. Indeed, the administration’s only meaningful reaction to the birth of genetically engineered babies came from far down the political food chain: a statement opposing germline genetic engineering issued by Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health.
Congress has also been quiescent about biotech’s growing potency. Indeed, even in a body whose members are known to dream up legislation in the wake of every provocative headline, there has been no discernible outcry or promise to update our archaic regulatory structures. To be sure, the media have covered the story prominently, but not at the decibel level that they did the Bush stem cell policy — despite the deeper and more profound stakes.
Every significant power sector requires meaningful checks and balances. Biotechnology is no exception, and, as related above, letting scientists regulate themselves through a system of voluntary self-restraint doesn’t cut it.
What to do? Until now the inertia against regulation has been as thick as molasses. But the adverse headlines to JK’s “rogue” act, and China’s forceful rejection of its own scientist’s conduct, present an opportunity for the Trump administration to engage the world in a robust conversation about what we want from biotechnology and where scientists should not be allowed to tread due to safety and ethical concerns. Perhaps the best place to start would be a legally enforceable international moratorium on further germ-line engineering in humans—say, for five years—while the world figures out how to deal with these powerful biotechnologies in a responsible manner. Violators could be denied patent protections. Suspending experimentation on human embryos in furtherance of germline engineering should also be on the table.
The problem is this is not the kind of issue that rings the president’s bell. He prefers policies with the potential for immediately measurable impacts about which he can brag, e.g., the lowest African-American unemployment rate in history, the highest stock market prices, ISIS destroyed in Syria, and so on. Moreover, having seen the hysterical attacks on Bush’s stem cell policy, he might reasonably anticipate that an even more hostile media would do worse to him.
Still, being a truly consequential president requires engaging crucial issues that one would rather avoid and that won’t bear immediate fruit or accrue instant political credit. Other than avoiding nuclear war, what could be more important than grappling with the moral challenges presented by the potent power of biotechnology?
Here’s a suggestion that might serve both the president’s policy predilections and the urgently needed biotech policy prescriptions of the moment: He could hand the ball off like a good quarterback to Vice President Mike Pence and let Pence run with it. I can even suggest a slogan for the campaign: Make Biotech Ethical Again.