Dr. Georgi Stamenov: My opinion
I have read a lot before I sat down writing this. I have contemplated not only on my own view, but also on how people reading this would understand it. Because there is a lot of opinions, and also many a stone is being thrown, and many a curse. But before I get to that let me remind the facts. What happened?
Using a genetic technology named CRISPR (a 'scissor' that can be used to edit genes), 31 embryos of 8 couples were manipulated, and a gene was replaced to make the embryos resistant to HIV infection.
Everyone or at least the majority of people are shocked by this; scientific journals are boiling with negative comments. "Shocking and premature!" Is it indeed? It is this same technology, that has been known for two years already, and that has been shown to be an effective gene editing tool by many experiments on mice and pigs models. It was a matter of time for it to be used in humans. Haven't everyone's efforts led in that very direction? It is another matter HOW it has been used in this case – 31 embryos – and these are potential human beings – this number seems enormous to me, even by Chinese standards. Nobody is protesting about that. And embryos should be treated respect, not just like mere numbers, because every single one of them is invaluable! Of the 31 embryos, only 2 were born, twins. Has anyone inquired into the fate of the remaining 29? It seems not. This is why I'd say it would be better to carry on such experiments on animal embryos first, and only then on 2 or 3 human ones. Respect for the human embryo is much more important to me than the experiment. We should however add that the idea for HIV-resistant embryos is not at all bad – isn't this the plague of our times for which we have no vaccine or cure yet? In the same train of thought – please consider people with genetic disease, for which gene editing could be the only solution – like thalassemia major, Huntington's disease, and hundreds of others. Just consider for a while that this could be the way to eradicating some forms of cancer, too, in which the faulty gene is known, and which still take their toll in every generation.
Yes, on the one hand we have an untimely and immoral approach to little embryos, but on the other – the idea behind CRISP is good!
The other problem that caused this uproar is the very way that the news was presented. Media are hungry for sensational news, and it looks like it is exactly what Dr. He was after. Well, this is not my personal credo as far as scientific discovery is concerned, especially when you have not conducted a proper followed up of the children, at least for a year, to check and see that their development would be normal. Here I do have a tiny excuse for Dr. He, as it is indeed hard to break through with science magazines and get your work published, especially when you do not come from the United States or Western Europe; they have a rich arsenal of ways to say no.
To everyone that now race to write about the Apocalypse, I would say this: you are underestimating God. I have always said that the human genome is only but a collection of programs that are started (if ever) only under the influence of outside factors. There is one thing much more powerful than genetics, and this is epigenetics. Let me give you a simple example – our genetic programming is like the keyboard of the grand piano, but what music will come out of it is known only to the one who can play it. Dr. He changed only one key, but it is God that will ultimately determine the life of these children, because God is the Maestro.
In many of my talks I have said that assisted reproduction is not only the solution to a fertility problem, but that it may be the new form of human evolution, and I might turn out right.
So Dr. He sought after fame and the spotlight and did not care for 31 human embryos. He who seeks will find. I am not his advocate, on the contrary – I do not approve his way and ethics at all! But the idea is worth it, and we have gone a long way to get to it. And not He, but all of us, who strive to make better lives for people!
To end up with – do not underestimate the Maestro, he knows the music better than us and he is the only one who can play it! We are only tuning the piano, nothing more! Don't forget this, and no – we are not Cassandras either! And we cannot postpone everything for tomorrow.
'Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day...'
(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5)