Chinese Scientist’s Human Genetic Engineering Experiment is ‘Crazy’
November 28, 2018

Stuart Newman, cell biology professor and founding member of the Council
for Responsible Genetics, says that the experiment where human twins had
genes engineered to make them immune from the HIV virus is a ‘crazy’
project because it misunderstands the dangers and complexity of how genes
<> Story

*GREG WILPERT: *It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to
you from Baltimore.

A scientist in China made what should be a momentous announcement on
Monday. He claimed to have successfully edited the genes of a pair of twins
who were born earlier this month. The Chinese scientist He Jiankui said
that he altered the twins’ genes so that they would be resistant to the HIV
virus, using a gene editing technique known as CRISPR. Here’s how he
justified the project in an interview with The Associated Press.

*HE JIANKUI: *I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make it
the first, but also make it an example how to perform like this, consider
morality of the society and consider its impact to the public.

*GREG WILPERT: *Genetic engineering of human genes is illegal in the United
States and in most other countries with the potential technology to do so.
However, in China, there’s no law against it, even though many scientists
have expressed strong opposition to the practice. Joining me now to discuss
the implications of this announcement is Professor Stuart Newman. He’s
professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College in
Valhalla, and he is a founding member of the Council for Responsible
Genetics and editor-in-chief of the journal Biological Theory. He is also
the author of the forthcoming book, Biotech Juggernaut. Thanks, Stuart, for
joining us today.

*STUART NEWMAN: *Thank you.

*GREG WILPERT: *So the scientist who did this, He Jiankui, he said that he
succeeded in this engineering project, but he did not provide any proof
that it actually worked. How likely do you think it is that it actually did

*STUART NEWMAN: *Well, I think he’s a serious scientist. I won’t comment
right now on the morality of what he did, but I think that he knows what
he’s doing scientifically. And I’ve met him, and I think that his claim, as
far as I can tell, is probably valid.

*GREG WILPERT: *So in an article that you published last year, you
expressed skepticism that the CRISPR technology could actually do some of
this kind of genetic engineering that was used in this particular test. Why
is it, what is the issue around – we’ll get to the morality later, but I
just want to get into the technique for a second. Why are you skeptical
about this project of genetic engineering using this kind of technique?

*STUART NEWMAN: *Well, there’s a difference between modifying a gene, even
accurately modifying a gene, and bringing about a phenotypic effect that
has a biological effect. So in the article that you probably saw, I said
that CRISPR won’t be useful in bringing about the results that people want
because the way genes operate in embryos is not the way that they operate
in adult organisms. In an adult organism, you can look at a gene and say it
more or less does one thing or it does two things. During embryonic
development, it interacts with many other genes in a very quickly changing
system and the proteins that the gene specifies don’t necessarily do the
same thing during development that they do in the adults. So I was
skeptical about the ability to bring about desired results. But if it’s
claimed that CRISPR can take a piece of DNA and change it in a specific
way, yes it can do that.

*GREG WILPERT: *So as we saw in the clip of He Jiankui, he says that he
felt it was important to do this and to do it for basically what he
considered to be a good cause or a good reason. What’s your reaction to
this argument and what do you see as being the dangers of this type of work?

*STUART NEWMAN: *I think it’s very unjustified that he did it. First of
all, He is just looking at the known function of the gene in adult humans,
he’s not looking at the function during embryonic development. There’s a
whole set of unknowns in the developmental process and we don’t really have
good scientific control over manipulating it, and we may never do because
it’s so complicated. So He has taken a gene with a known function in the
adult and he’s said it’s bad to have that gene active, so he inactivated
it. But really, there’s lot of misconceptions, kind of unthinking, kind of
moving ahead in what he did that he should have never done it.

*GREG WILPERT: *So what is at stake here, basically, and what do you see as
being the best way to avoid the worst kinds of consequences of this

*STUART NEWMAN: *Well I think you know he’s taking something that I guess
he would say everybody agrees it would be good to be resistant against,
AIDS or other viral diseases. So he’s looking for some kind of agreement in
what he did by the particular problem that he addressed. But in fact, what
some people consider an impairment other people don’t consider an
impairment. In particularly American society, I can’t speak for Chinese
society, there’s a kind of a consumerist ethic which says that if somebody
wants to pay for something and it’s possible to do, they should be allowed
to do it.

And in fact, you said at the top of the segment that there are laws against
it in the United States, but there really aren’t. There are not laws in the
United States against genetically modifying embryos. So we would have to
pass such laws in order to prevent it from happening. And even passing the
laws won’t prevent it from happening because there’ll people who do it
surreptitiously. So I think that we really have to talk about it a lot. It
has to be stigmatized it has to be something that a lot of opprobrium falls
on somebody who would attempt such a thing because in many cases it will
turn out badly. And then what do you do with one of the unfortunate
outcomes that turned out worse rather than better than not and hoped for.
This is really a totally poor and motivated project.

*GREG WILPERT: *Well, what do you think, first of all, are the motivations
behind this technology and this project?

*STUART NEWMAN: *Well, it’s just kind of a simple-minded approach to a
medical problem. I mean, it’s like saying that AIDS is bad, this gene is
associated with AIDS, get rid of this gene and we won’t have AIDS or
something. So really, it won’t affect AIDS and the population, it will
affect it in a couple of individuals. And if those individuals that have
been genetically modified if it works and I doubt that it will work as
intended. But if even if it does work it’ll just give a license to those
resistant individuals to act responsibly and not use precautions and get
themselves tested if they’re at risk and so on. So it’s really crazy,
actually, I would call it crazy to try to do this. And scientifically, it’s
based on a poor understanding of science.

*GREG WILPERT: *I guess the main issue here, perhaps, is that there’s a lot
of potential for unintended consequences and that the biology is a lot more
complicated than people make it out to be if you look only at the
individual genes. Is that more or less it in a nutshell?

*STUART NEWMAN: *That’s absolutely true, yes. And there’s a kind of a false
notion that if you understand an organism’s genes, if you can modify the
organism’s genes, you can understand how the organism works and you can get
it to work in a new way, in kind of an engineering paradigm. And this is
not true at all. Genes are not the only thing that are controlling what
goes on in an organism, particularly during early development. There are
many forces, there physical forces, environmental forces involved in
molding the embryos, not just the genes. And the other thing that’s not
recognized in these attempts is that genes don’t always do the same thing
in the same context. So the very same gene acting at different stages in
the life history of an individual can do very different things, and this is
not taken into account at all in these experiments.

*GREG WILPERT: *OK. Well, we’ll leave it there for now. I was speaking to
Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical
College in Valhalla. Thanks again, Stuart, for having joined us today.

*STUART NEWMAN: *Thank you.

*GREG WILPERT: *And thank you for joining The Real News Network. If you
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