Frankly ... Posthuman Before “Superhumans” Arrive

The first genetically modified babies live among us. In the column "Pronounced ... posthuman", Liwen Qin worries about the impact on humanity.

By Liwen Qin

Superbaby Nobody's perfect - are you?! | Photo (detail): Valeria Zoncoll © Unsplash
Who doesn’t want to be healthier, smarter, stronger, live longer and even acquire magical powers? From Achilles’ mother Thetis soaking him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable, to Chinese Monkey King stealing magical peaches from the orchard of the Emperor of Heaven for immortality, ancient mythologies worldwide have shown us how strong this permanent yearning to become “superhumans” is. As genetic science brings humans closer to reckless pursuit of this dream, reality has shown that we need to act quickly to monitor the process more effectively.

A dream becomes true?

Editing the genome of an individual in such a way that the change is heritable is referred to as “human germline engineering”, which is to alter the genes within the germ cells or the reproductive cells, such as the egg and sperm. The current technology for this, CRISPR, has been helpful in gene therapy for sickness. But it is very risky to apply germline engineering for reproductive purpose, because we still have very little knowledge about how the genes interact with each other over time and what such a variation would trigger in babies.

Risky research

Although there is a consensus in the global science community to refrain from human germline engineering for reproductive purposes, the defense line against such practice is very thin. For example, Japan only issued its guidelines allowing the use of gene-editing tools in human embryos last September, theoretically restricting the manipulation of human embryos for reproduction. But the Japanese guidelines would not be legally binding, like in the case in many other countries, including the US and China.

China creates accomplished facts

The urgency of a discussion over how to co-exist with humans reproduced with germline engineering became obvious last November, when a Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he has altered the embryonic genes of a set of twins in an attempt to protect them from infection with the HIV virus carried by their father. This is the first case of human germline engineered babies in human history. To make the twins immune to HIV, He has deleted a gene called CCR5, which not only makes mice smarter but also improves human brain recovery after stroke, and could be linked to greater success in school.

The Pandora's box is open

He was unanimously condemned by scientists in China and around the globe. Now he has been banned from conducting research and has vanished from the public. But a pandora’s box has been opened. What would be the punishment for He if the twins developed a unique incurable disease because of their edited genes? How about those scientists who have concurred with He by keeping silent about his work from an early stage? What if they become the inspiration for more “Dr. Frankensteins” to produce superhumans? What kind of change would they bring to the human gene pool through their offspring?

So far, because of the under-developed laws in this area, we are more or less helpless to provide answers, even though answers are needed urgently. Governments around the world need to impose more developed, stricter laws and regulations against such reckless human experiments for our common future as a species. This is not to suffocate innovation out of unreasonable fear, but to make sure that innovation does not take human lives lightly as a “necessary cost”. Before the “superhumans” arrive, it is humanity that we need to protect.

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly …” column series is written by Liwen Qin, Maximilian Buddenbohm, Dominic Otiang’a and Gerasimos Bekas. In “Frankly … posthuman”, Liwen Qin takes a look at technical advances and how they affect our lives and our society: in the car, in the office, and at the supermarket checkout.