Scientific Validity vs. Bioethical Violation?

In a previous blog entry, Dr. Riley covered the 30 December 2019 conviction of He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who allegedly created the first genetically altered human babies born in November 2018, to three years in prison for “illegal medical practices”. His criminal conviction is somewhat surprising to me because I believe Dr. He must have received at least initial support from the Chinese government for his human genetic experimentation, particularly since he was allowed to travel to Hong Kong in late 2018 and make public a portion of his research. My surprise is that the almost universal uproar about the bioethical violations in this case can (at least presently) make even the Chinese government admit that a line has been crossed that warrants public condemnation and punishment of those involved. Though the crime cited was crossing a thinner bioethical line (lying on the informed consent about the risks of genetic engineering to the babies) rather than the fuller bioethical line (the actual risks of genetic engineering to the babies and humanity in general), a bioethical crime was committed.

There are other aspects of this story that need our bioethical consideration. Antonio Regalado in a recent Technology Review, describes the still circuitous path Dr. He’s research has taken en route to ANY publication. In fact, it appears that Technology Review is the first publication to make any portion of the original manuscript public (there is a link within the link provided above of excerpts of Dr. He’s manuscript). I cannot do justice to Mr Regalado’s sleuthful efforts at piecing together this story (it defies a simple summary) and encourage those interested to read his account in the link above.

Regalado reports that Dr. Howard Bauchner, editor-in-chief at JAMA, was given access to the original manuscript just days after the 2018 Hong Kong conference. Regalado found Dr. Bauchner to be generally supportive of genetic editing of embryos:

“I think it’s inevitable that it will move ahead, and I think it should move ahead… Oftentimes early scientific breakthroughs [such as organ transplantation and IVF] are seen as unethical, and then over time that changes, [as the technologies prove successful].”

In fact, a main dilemma for Bauchner remains the following: “If someone thinks it’s scientifically valid but not ethical, does that mean the study will stay in the shadows?…It’s such an interesting question.”

An interesting question indeed. One online repository of pre-published scientific papers called bioRxiv rejected the manuscript, likening the manuscript to a paper it might have received from Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi death camp doctor. One might therefore wonder why Technology Review has published any portion of the manuscript. They are not a scientific journal per se, with strict peer review to validate the scientific method and results. They are a publisher of scientific news, and Dr. He’s experiment, regardless of it’s many bioethical failures, is certainly scientific news. Technology Review offers a more in-depth opinion as to why they believe it is appropriate to make the manuscript public.

Back to Dr. Bauchner’s interesting question. Does he mean by scientific validity that Dr. He’s experiment (may have) accurately edited the section of human genome that Dr. He claimed and therefore the scientific community should be able to learn from that? Even so, it still seems to me that that Dr. Bauchner is putting the scientific cart before the bioethical horse. Shouldn’t we decide whether it is right to edit the human genome in the first place before worrying about the validity of the technique to edit that genome?

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