One of the world’s leading geneticists says it will only be a matter of time before the genes of human embryos are ‘edited’ to enhance their health and intelligence – and it is something we should embrace rather than fear.
George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, said the current controversy surrounding the editing of human embryos was overblown and compared it to the short lived moral panic that preceded the introduction of IVF or “test tube babies” in the late 1970s.
Interviewed for a feature in this week’s Telegraph Magazine Church, who made his name as part of the international team that first mapped the human genome in 2003, said he was less worried about gene editing being used to enhance human intelligence than the technique being restricted to a privileged few. He predicted it would eventually be “adopted worldwide”.
“I just don’t think that blue eyes and [an extra] 15 IQ points is really a public health threat,” he said, “I don’t think it’s a threat to our morality.”
In November, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, shocked the world by announcing he had used CRISPR-Cas9, a genetic editing tool Church helped pioneer, to disable a gene called CCR5 in the embryos of twin girls to make them resistant to HIV.
The move was condemned as ‘monstrous’ by scientists worldwide as it broke a long-standing scientific taboo – using an unproven technique to address a disease that is already treatable.
But while others expressed outrage, Church remained equivocal, telling Science magazine, “As long as these are normal, healthy kids, it’s going to be fine for the field and the family.”
In his interview with The Telegraph, Church went further, comparing the reaction to Jiankui’s announcement with the fear that surrounded the first use of IVF.
“For a while, it looked like In Vitro Fertilisation was going to be something that was not used, because everybody said ‘test tube babies!’ that’s really scary,’” he said. “Then one healthy baby later, Louise Brown in 1978, and suddenly it’s OK.”