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Posted on January 9, 2020 at 8:24 PM

A writer in Nature says that China sent a
“strong signal”
by punishing He Jiankui and two colleagues with
fines, jail times, and bans against working again in human reproductive technology
or applying for research funding.  (They
lost their jobs as well and may not be able to do research work, presumably in
any field, in a Chinese institution again.) 
It is encouraging, this writer says, that China took this action
demonstrating a commitment to human research ethics.  He and other researchers doing gene-editing
work that is not ethically objectionable worry that there may be collateral
damage, so to speak, against ANY gene-editing research in China.

Another writer in Nature says cites progress
under “appropriate caution” for using gene editing techniques for
so-called “somatic” gene editing; that is, editing disease genes in
an existing person with that disease, to treat it.  This is, in essence, a form of gene therapy
and is ethically permissible under proper research ethical guidelines.  Some clinical trials in progress involve
injecting the gene-editing apparatus into a person, while most such trials
remove the person’s blood cells, edit them in the laboratory, then re-introduce
them into the bloodstream, after which the edited cells are left to mature
normally.  The latter approach is
particularly attractive to treat genetic blood diseases such as sickle cell
anemia.

Both perspectives seem correct, as far as they go—never mind
whether Dr. He’s jail sentence fits the crime, as Joy Riley asked
on this blog last weekend.  Never mind
also whether Dr. He’s research should be published; as Mark
McQuain commented
, it’s a bit incongruous to want to assess the technical
merits of work that should not have been done in the first place.  He linked an opinion in Technology Review
that argued, briefly, that because the ethics of editing genes in human embryos
is under societal debate, people trying to decide on the ethical merits should
be able to assess for themselves whether Dr. He succeeded, technically at what
he set out to do.  (The consensus to date
seems to be, no, he did not.)   But the
role of technical success in assessing the ethical merits of a medical
intervention—or, better, an intervention made in the name of medicine—depends on
the degree to which the ethical judgment is a matter of making a reasonably
reliable of risk and benefit, and the degree to which risk-benefit is a
criterion for judging the ethical merits. 
And therein, as they say, lies the rub—which I hope to revisit in coming
posts.

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