NewsDenver7 360 | In-Depth reports


Designer babies: The genetic editing experiment that has caused recent controversy

Posted at 7:35 PM, Nov 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-28 23:21:46-05

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at See more 360 stories here.

DENVER -- A Chinese scientist claims he helped create genetically-edited twins who are resistant to HIV, and it has everyone on the internat talking. 

But is it a promising step to stop diseases or a disturbing use of genetic technology?

To give some context, Dr. He Jiankui said he is "proud" of his work, using a tool known as CRISPR to remove a gene from the embryos of twin girls, altering their DNA to make them resistant to HIV. 

If it's true, that trial is a violation of international agreements and ethical norms, to the point even the co-creator of the technology, Jennifer Doudna, said this: "I couldn't guarantee to you that he did what he claimed. It's very disturbing. It's inappropriate."

On the flip side, for those of us who aren't doctors or scientists, the idea of preventing diseases sounds good, right?

"If it's going to help find cures of disease, I think it's great, that's my opinion," said Aline Cruz, a Denver resident exciting about the possibilities.

Other parents question the slippery slope.

"All parents want their children to be healthy," said Jessica Lahitou, a mother playing with her two children in Denver's Washington Park. "And obviously some parents have more set dreams: sports players or physicists or what have you, so if you can start altering the genes to make them smarter, bigger stronger, then I think many parents will do that and I'm just not sure what the societal implications could be for that."

Geneticists say they are a long way from choosing exactly what parents want in a baby, but already some doctors in Colorado can detect dozens of genetic diseases in embryos during in vitro fertilization, and some allow parents to choose the gender of their babies.

But choosing a boy or girl seems a far cry from the genetic editing that could affect generations.

"It could have unintended consequences and we could be causing harm," said Dr. Curtis Coughlin with the Center for Bioethics and Humanities on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

Coughlin, and other scientists, are concerned that this kind of genetic editing could cause genetic defects that last generations or harm other genes.

Plus, he said, there may be better way to use the technology for disease that don't involve embryo, including single organs or to treat an individual patient.

"This could prevent devastating disease, possibly. We don't know because it's still in early stages," said Coughlin, who is worried that rogue scientists with little regulation or oversight could scare people away from this technology before we can learn about its true benefits or its risks. "Scientists need to be very forthcoming about what they do so that the public understands what they’re doing and has the opportunity to say, 'this is something that as a society we support.'"