MAINLAND scientist He Jiankui's announcement of the birth of a pair of twins who were made AIDS-proof by genome-editing technology has provoked a huge outcry. More than a hundred Chinese scientists have signed a letter condemning his research while the Ministry of Science and Technology has made it clear that it is unlawful to edit the genomes of babies. Whether He will attend the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong has also become a topic of widespread concern. Genome editing has been the most sought-after medical technology in recent years but it has also raised ethical controversies from time to time. Although many countries have legislation to regulate research on human embryonic genomes, it is not difficult to exploit loopholes in the laws. The mainland authorities must launch an investigation to ascertain the facts surrounding He's claim and punish anyone who has violated the law. The Hong Kong government has been pushing hard to develop innovation and technology lately, with biotechnology and genetic engineering being one of the major fields identified. To prevent anyone from abusing the technology, the government must establish a regulatory framework in this regard.
From the birth of the first cloned sheep Dolly, stem cell research, to genome-editing technology in recent years, genetic technology has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past two decades. While such research has brought more hopes of treating various rare and difficult illnesses, it has also raised a multitude of ethical and moral issues. At the beginning of this century, an Italian scientist claimed success in human cloning, arousing widespread controversy even though his claims could not be verified. Many people are concerned that genetic modification (GM) may give rise to the issue of eugenics. They also worry that imprudent applications of genetic engineering technology to human beings are tantamount to "human experimentation". In the latest case, if the birth of genome-edited babies proves to be true, it will be the first of its kind in the world. It is imaginable how controversial this can be.
While genome editing technology can have unlimited potential in curing diseases, it can also be employed in other aspects, such as the creation of "super soldiers" with exceptional eyesight and physical strength. In fact, the US Department of Defense has poured significant resources into genome editing research in recent years. If genome editing technology is abused and used on human embryos, that may result in the birth of "designer babies" or "enhanced humans". Some people may attempt genome editing for the sake of having gifted offspring. If so, that will create social inequalities and alter the genetic development of human beings in the long run.
China, the US and Europe have invested heavily in genetic research in recent years. None of them wants to impose regulations that are too strict so as not to hamper the research and lag behind others. For instance, when Chinese scientists took the lead in doing genome editing experiments on human embryos in 2015, at first they drew criticisms from the US. However, later the US also loosened its own restrictions and did the same experiments. If countries relax their regulations too much in the process of competing for a leading position, they may also encourage some reckless scientists.
Hong Kong is striving to become an international centre for innovation and technology and has set biotechnology as one of the major fields for development. There are first-class genetic experts in the city, but its development in the field of genome editing has, relatively speaking, fallen behind, since in Hong Kong there is only research on cell cultivation but not on the application of genome editing. Presumably, its current hosting of the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing will give a huge boost to local research on this area. Amid the outcry over the creation of genome-edited babies, the government should take this as a warning and establish a regulatory framework as soon as possible. That way scientists will have laws to abide by when doing research and improper applications of genome editing technology can be avoided.