Bioethics: The Hour of Transgression
A researcher announced on November 26, 2018 the birth of two genetically “corrected” children. In France, researchers have pounced on these techniques and are now pleading to be allowed to use them on embryos.
He Jiankui, a researcher for the University of Shenzhen in southern China, told the Associated Press on November 26 that he successfully modified the CCR5 gene, the gene that allows the AIDS virus to enter the system, in two embryos that were then re-implanted into a woman’s womb.
Is it a coincidence that this announcement came just as researchers from all over the world were meeting in Hong Kong to discuss “human gene editing”, or the possibility of modifying an individual’s genes?
The technique that has made this possible since 2012 is called Crispr-Cas9 (pronounce ‘crisper cas 9’). It is a sort of pair of molecular scissors that makes specific genetic modifications possible. This technique is known in France, and genome editing is mostly used to study diseases and their developments.
But Crispr-Cas9 is opening new doors, such as the ability to act directly upon an embryo in the hopes of treating the 7,000 genetic diseases due to the mutation of a single gene, and that some hope to eventually be able to correct at the embryonic stage.
However transferring modified embryos back into a woman’s uterus, as the Chinese researcher did, is out of the question. For in France, any germinal modification of the genome, that is to say, any modification that can be transmitted to descendants, is strictly prohibited.
At least for the time being, for the arrival of Crispr-Cas9 was a game-changer, according to specialists: “That which was nothing more than a distant hypothesis has become possible,” explains Anne Cambon, a doctor and member of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies. An open door to new perspectives for manipulating man.