Berman Faculty share response to human gene editing claims

December 13, 2018

A renegade. But not a charlatan.

That was the opinion of a group of Berman Institute faculty about He Jiankhi, the Chinese scientist who claims to have used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to edit the embryos of twin girls that he said were born last month.

In the wake of He’s announcement, the Berman Institute held a Dec. 10 panel discussion, “Ethics, Policy, and Human Genome Editing—What’s Now? What’s Next?” for the faculty and students of the JHU School of Medicine’s Institute of Genetic Medicine (watch below).

Berman Institute Director Jeffrey Kahn was in Hong Kong to attend the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing when the news of He’s actions broke.

“If true as reported – and He, who has now vanished from sight, has not published any data that would confirm his action – this would be an extremely premature and ethically problematic experiment in creating genetically modified children,” said Kahn.

Kahn was joined on the panel by Debra Mathews, who gave a brief scientific introduction to genetic modification, and Jeremy Sugarman, who outlined a number of the ethical issues raised by He’s actions, including lack of oversight, the possibility of off-target effects, the informed consent of the parents, the prospect of genetic enhancement raised by He’s actions, and the need for responsible follow-up, among others.

The panel stated that He’s actions would be illegal in many countries, including the United States, and that recent developments suggest that Chinese authorities are investigating their legality in his native country.  Such an experiment also violates the recommendations in the international consensus report issued in 2017.

“The creation of these gene-edited children violates virtually every existing guideline, policy, norm, and value surrounding the use of this technology,” said Kahn, who was interviewed by numerous media outlets about He’s actions, including the Washington PostNPR, and Vox.

Kahn said that the Berman Institute would continue to organize programs and provide additional ongoing response about the bioethical implications of human gene editing.