Lluis Montoliu had heard rumors for several months that in China there were already children genetically edited. On Monday, the 55-year-old Spanish biologist felt "freezing" when he watched the video where scientist He Jiankui announces "in a messianic tone" that two twin sisters are deactivated to make them immune to AIDS infection. Montoliu, researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology and founding president of the International Society of Transgenic Technologies, uses CRISPR technology to create rats with rare diseases similar to human, such as albinism. In his opinion, there are still many unknown risks for using the human embryo tool for therapeutic purposes. For China, it is also not an application to cure a hereditary disease. The embryos were healthy. It is, as Montoliu regrets, a supposed attempt with genetic improvement of the human species.
Question. What do you think about the He Jiankui ad?
Response. One must remain skeptical and suppose we do not yet know if this is what we really say. We have already extinguished a lot of news from China that we need to correct or deny. More than a scientific communication, it seems like a announcement of some of the researcher's companies, which have companies and therefore have an interest in the matter. Legitimate, but ultimately interested. On Tuesday, a World Congress for Genetic Editing in Hong Kong begins. Best sound card available there. He has a big advertising campaign and now he has big purchases of couples who will ask him for this genetic editing process.
"The next step is total eugenics. Will you tell parents what you want?"
P. Is it ethical?
R. A box of Pandora opened. There is a huge immortality. It's not a problem to heal. It's a genetic improvement. The next step is total eugenics. They will tell their parents, "What do you want?" Vetoen is lifted, which is what we did not want to happen, but it happened where we knew it would happen: in China. It must be clearly stated that this experience is illegal in our country and is illegal in many other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, where genetic editing of embryos in research is possible but not implementation [em uma mãe].
P. What are these girls like?
R. The most common is that they are mosaic girls, with different genetic codes in their cells. It is absolutely irresponsible. Under the age of 20 or 30, they can develop an autoimmune disease where their body's defense attacks their own cells. And the changes in these girls will be passed on to their children. The bioethical impact goes beyond girls. Chinese scientists have created a new tribe of people in a strict sense. The message they send is terrible. More people will request these genes to be deactivated in their children. The authors crossed two red lines: a genetically modified human embryo was implanted and hosted. In addition, the application is genetic improvement, not therapeutic.
"A Pandora's box has been opened. There is a huge immortality"
P. Is there any way to avoid such experiences in humans?
R. This year we launched the Association for Responsible Research and Innovation in Genetic Editing (ARRIGE) in Paris. The body was incorporated into Unesco. One of our proposals is to strengthen international governance, but we are aware that it is very difficult. There are few treaties with a worldwide scope in addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Perhaps it's time to make an international convention to regulate genetic editing. What seems to have happened in China would require the existence of international law.
P. What could be wrong in China?
R. The deactivation of a gene through genetic editing, through CRISPR, is the easiest application of all. Despite this, one of the twin sisters seems to have both copies of the gene turned off, while the other sister has only one of the two copies turned off, as the researcher admits. I find it incredible that he recognizes it without any problems. This shows its inability to control the system. I ask this researcher to tell us exactly what he did and how to assess the impact of the experiment.