Should We Refuse to Recognize Docs Who Try Human Gene Editing?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


April 20, 2020

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Grossman School of Medicine, where I run the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU in New York City.

You may have seen headlines about a Chinese scientist who claimed that he had genetically edited human embryos using CRISPR techniques at a conference approximately 2 years ago. He received attention worldwide after saying that he was trying to edit these embryos so that they wouldn't acquire HIV from a dad who was HIV-positive.

He modified at least two embryos and said there was a third, but we didn't hear much about what happened to those children. We haven't heard much of anything because pretty soon after that announcement took place, that researcher disappeared.

He was not heard from until the end of December 2019. Suddenly, the Chinese government announced that they had sentenced him to 3 years in jail and a $500,000 fine. They also sent two of his coworkers to jail for these experiments.

Chinese authorities said that he had not obtained proper informed consent from the families and that he had, in fact, broken rules against trying this kind of human genetic engineering. It's supposed to be done in animals, but not in people yet, and certainly should not be done to try and create people with genetically engineered traits. They came down hard, and they punished him.

Well, many of us are thinking, that's great, but what are we really going to do to stop people from trying to engineer embryos in the future? The Chinese prison sentence certainly is sending a message in China, but what about the rest of the world?

I think there are some things that need to be done, but I think they depend upon science, medicine, and their leadership to do it. I doubt we're going to see anybody sent to jail in the United States. I could imagine fines, but probably not prison time, for doing germline gene editing experiments on embryos—that is, trying to change the traits in an embryo so that a human being grows up stronger, smarter, and more disease-resistant.

The fact is that we don't know how to do this today. Anybody who does it would be grossly irresponsible, just as the Chinese government said about the experiment there, but the technologies will improve and we could see it.

If we don't want it done, what do we really need to do beyond threatening jail sentences? I think there are a couple of things we could do, but it's going to take courage and commitment from medical and scientific leaders.

First, journals should say that if these experiments are done now—they're unsafe, they're not approved by proper government authorities—then they will not be published.

One thing I know about scientists is that they want their work known, they want to make a claim to being the first to do things, and they want their peers to admire them. If you take publication out of their hands, you are going to have a huge disincentive to doing that kind of an experiment.

Also, don't allow people to present their work at conferences and meetings. That's what the Chinese scientist did. He didn't provide any data or any proof. He just said that he had done it, and no one could examine it.

Well, until you have a paper out, you shouldn't be allowed to talk about it at a professional society meeting. You should not be on the program, because it means that no one's going to be able to look at the data and see that you did what you say you did.

Lastly, for anybody who breaks the rules, their papers and their work should never be cited by other people by name. That is, if you do something that's immoral and the research turns out either positive or negative, the people who follow should not mention the author.

In other words, the punishment that I think people in science and medicine would take seriously is ignominy—not having any identification, recognition, or any kind of credit for what they did.

You may say, well, is that really all that powerful? And my response is, absolutely. People are motivated by many things, but the doctors and scientists I know who work at the cutting edge of research are motivated by fame, notoriety, pride, and recognition for their work.

If we take those things away—if we're willing to really be tough about that—I think we could control this technology and others like it.

I'm Art Caplan at the NYU School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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