Canadian scientists fear blowback over CRISPR babies could undermine their work

A Chinese scientist claims the world's first two gene edited babies have been born. That sparked calls for tighter regulations on the technology, but Canada's laws are already among the most restrictive in the world — too restrictive for many Canadian scientists.

Canada already has some of the world's strictest regulations around the use of gene editing

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Dr. Janet Rossant is one of many Canadian scientists pushing the government to amend its restrictive rules around the use of CRISPR for research. (Hospital for Sick Children/Canadian Press)

To date, much of the debate around the use of CRISPR technology has been fuelled by a mix of dystopian and utopian visions for its future applications.

Until recently, most genetic scientists appeared to be on the same page: The science, and the world, isn't yet ready for gene edited babies. But last week, those dystopian fears were re-ignited.

Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced to the world that he used CRISPR to alter the DNA of two twin girls, disabling a particular gene so the girls might be resistant to HIV infection.

His research was shrouded in secrecy. Scientists around the world unanimously condemned what he claims to have done, and the way he did it.

He Jiankui of China's Southern University of Science and Technology says he altered the DNA of embryos during fertility treatments with the goal of preventing the babies from becoming infected with HIV. (Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press)

The experiment also caught the eye of regulators around the world.

Scott Gottlieb, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, tweeted that "certain uses of science should be judged intolerable, and cause scientists to be cast out. The use of CRISPR to edit human embryos or germ line cells should fall into that bucket."

UNESCO has also called for a complete ban on human germline editing

But research scientists that use CRISPR say this type of solution is counter-productive.

Amid the uproar, it was easy to lose track of what genetic experts were saying: Technology to alter the human genome is real, and it's time to have a sober discussion about how it's used.

A scientist uses CRISPR technology at a lab in southern China's Guangdong province. (Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press)

CRISPR in Canada

Laws around CRISPR in Canada are among the most restrictive in the world. It's one of the only countries where using CRISPR on human cells or embryos is a criminal offence, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

"The law makes it illegal for researchers to alter the human genome, in any way that could be inherited," Dr. Janet Rossant, a senior scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, told CBC's Day 6

Dr. Rossant has been a pioneer of new techniques for manipulating the genes of mice, and she is one of a handful of scientists in Canada to use CRISPR on non-human embryos.

She says CRISPR has features that could eventually make it safe enough to use on serious hereditary diseases — but there's only so much scientists can learn from studying mice.

"Eventually, you can see a day where people with diseases like cystic fibrosis want to have children without that gene, and this could be an option," she said. "Understanding how these processes work in human embryos will be very valuable." 

Countries like the U.S., China and the U.K. are at the forefront of that type of research. Right now, it's not an option in Canada, unless you're willing to face jail time.

CRISPR technology could eventually be used to eradicate serious hereditary diseases, but most scientists agree that day is still a ways away. (Getty Images)

Dr. Rossant says Dr. He's "premature" experiment could have a chilling effect on valuable gene-editing research, and hinder the efforts of Canadian scientists pushing to loosen the rules.

"There's a good chance this will make Health Canada say 'we were right, let's not change things'."

The 'slippery slope'

This isn't the first time researchers, and the world, have been nervous about a scientific leap.

"It's hard to believe now, but IVF was once as controversial as gene editing is now," said Robin Marantz Henig, science writer and author of Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution.

"Even scientists who thought it was a promising thing to do were very worked up about whether this would damage chromosomes, and whether the technology would be used nefariously."

In 1972, the British magazine Nova ran a cover story saying test tube babies were "the biggest threat since the atom bomb." In America, the American Medical Association argued that all research involving "human fetal tissue" must stop.

But since the birth of the first test tube baby in 1978, millions of babies have been born through IVF, and fears around the technology have subsided.

"Maybe in 20 years [gene editing] will be seen as much less controversial, too," said Henig.

Dr. Rossant says that's possible, but responsible research is still needed, as well as a rigorous debate about what we want as a human race.

"There's a lot at stake here," she said. "This isn't for scientists to decide."


To hear the full interview with Janet Rossant, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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