The year 2019 ended with three years in jail sentenced to He Jiankui for illegal medical practice. The CRISPR-baby scandal’s epilogue was applauded on twitter by a few leading scientists such as Craig Venter and Fyodor Urnov and decried on STAT News by the controversial biohacker Josiah Zayner. Most experts, however, stayed silent.
As stressed by the Washington Post, “the judicial proceedings were not public, and outside experts said it is hard to know what to make of the punishment without the release of the full investigative report or extensive knowledge of Chinese law and the conditions under which He will be incarcerated.”
Exactly one year ago, AP News went public with the CRISPR-babies story. What happened to He Jiankui then? His trace was lost after the picture of him sequestered in a university guesthouse in Shenzhen.
How are Lulu&Nana? Nobody knows, but at least the study suggesting they might die early has been retracted.
What became of the global governance of germline editing? Waiting for the Science academies and the WHO reports in 2020.
What about the next baby-editing? Denis Rebrikov says he plans to do extensive safety checks before seeking approval to implant an edited embryo.
Last but not least, how many couples are interested in germline editing? Very few, according to calculations published in The CRISPR Journal.
The analysis of tweets discussing CRISPR from 2013 to 2019 shows that public enthusiasm for genome editing has cooled a bit, and that’s physiological. As you can see below, a bioRxiv paper associates peaks of strong negative sentiments with specific events.
Never at the top of front pages (Nyt, 27 Nov. 2018)
Twenty days after the announcement, many questions remain. The one certainty seems to be that the first CRISPR babies are less breaking news than expected.
They will be in front pages again, probably, if and when the scientific paper gets published, if and when the baby-editor He Jiankui resurfaces, if and when the first photos of Lulu and Nana are circulated. But if the coverage of Dolly the sheep is considered in comparison, there’s no match. Why?
The media world has changed dramatically in the meantime, CRISPR is still unknown to many, China is perceived as a Wild East where anything can happen. But a sheep is always a sheep, and babies are babies. We should care about the first edited kids more than that. Maybe people are less troubled by human genome editing than most bioethicists. Perhaps the media have had enough of Gattaca, Frankenstein, and the likes. Did we cry wolf too often yesterday to get people interested today?
Don’t miss the “Draft Ethical Principles for Therapeutic Assisted Reproductive Technologies” just published by He Jiankui et al. in The CRISPR Journal. It seems the Lulu and Nana’s experiment is at odds even with their own guidelines. We are eager to hear more from He’s voice, his talk in Hong Kong is scheduled on Wednesday, 28 November 2018 (Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing-live broadcast)
“Agricultural research, or a new bioweapon system?”. This is the question asked by Guy Reeves et al. in a policy forum published in Science today. The evolutionary geneticist from the Max Planck Institute and his German and French coauthors doubt that the Insect Allies program funded by Darpa in the US will realize significant agricultural benefits, e.g. in relation to drought, frost, flooding, herbicide, salinity, or disease. They fear, indeed, that it will be “widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their delivery, which – if true – would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention.” Continue reading →
A paper published in Nature Biotechnology by Allan Bradley and colleagues from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, shows that classical CRISPR editing can cause large rearrangements of DNA near the target site in actively dividing cells. We may think of it as the latest CRISPR alarm, but also as a demonstration of how biomedical research works. Firstly: no technology is perfect, but the best ones are perfectible. CRISPR belongs to this category because it is an extraordinarily versatile and fast-evolving biotech platform. When reading news like “CRISPR causes this or that problem,” the first question to ask is: which CRISPR variant are we talking about? Continue reading →