Ethical, safety questions loom after first gene-edited baby is born in China

Today's expression: Slippery slope
Explore more: Lesson #110
December 10, 2018:

Chinese scientist Hu Jinakui says that he edited the genes of an embryo during in vitro fertilization and that the embryo grew to be a girl who was born in November. If his claims are true, the girl is the world's first genetically-modified human. Dr. Hu modified her genes to make her less likely to inherit the HIV virus from her father, who is HIV-positive. The techniques employed by Dr. Hu raise difficult ethical questions about the proper limits to genetically modifying humans. Plus, learn the English phrase "slippery slope."

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A scientist in China claims he genetically modified an embryo, producing the world’s first gene-edited baby

You’ve heard of genetically modified breakfast cereal; now we might have genetically modified human babies, if the claims of Chinese scientist He Jiankui turn out to be true.

Welcome back to Plain English. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and you are listening to the best podcast for learning English through current events. Like always, you can read a transcript of the program on our web site. Today’s transcript is available at PlainEnglish.com/110. And of course our transcripts have translations into Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, and French. Thanks to our translators Mattia, Meg, Paola, Tao, and of course JR for their hard work and dedication on the translations.

I want to remind you also about our partner, MosaLingua, which has some great online resources for learning English. The one I particularly like is the class on pronunciation. That’s where you’ll build your pronunciation skills and really improve your confidence. To check that out, just go to PlainEnglish.com/talk.


Scientist claims first genetically-modified child is born

Chinese scientist He Jiankui released a video in which he says that he modified the genes of a human embryo, and the embryo grew into a girl who was born healthy in November. If what he says is true, then this girl would be the first human baby born with modified genes.

The announcement has caused a controversy among scientists and ethicists. Our genes, our DNA, are what define us as humans. It’s what gives us our talents, our traits, and in some cases our frailties and disabilities. The genetic characteristics of any individual are a random combination of traits inherited from biological mothers and fathers. Until today, they’ve never been touched or edited by another person. Editing human genes is illegal in the United States; while it’s not illegal in China, it is controversial there. Dr. He has been placed on unpaid suspension while his university investigates. The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, says it was not involved in Dr. He’s work on the embryo.

Dr. He says that he worked with seven couples in China. In each case, the father is HIV-positive. Being HIV-positive and developing AIDS used to be a death sentence; today’s it’s more manageable, but is still a serious health concern and it carries a significant social stigma in China. Dr. He says that during in vitro fertilization, he modified the embryos of their children in such a way as to prevent the father from passing along HIV to his children. Though he didn’t offer data or evidence to back up his work, people who are familiar with Dr. He’s work say they believe that the scientist’s claims may be true. One reason why this procedure is seen as especially controversial is that it isn’t even necessary: there are other ways to prevent a father from passing along the HIV virus to his children without editing genes.

Gene editing itself is not new. The process consists of adding, subtracting, or modifying DNA to produce certain traits in an organism. We have had genetically modified food since the early 1990s: primarily fruits, vegetables, corn, soybeans, and wheat. Genetically modified crops are more resistant to disease and stay fresh longer. Most scientists think genetically modified food is safe.

Genetically modified animals are a little different; they are mostly for the laboratory. Scientists have been working on GM cows, chickens, and pigs that are resistant to disease or grow faster, but these are not widely available in the food supply.

Modifying the genes of another human, though, is a totally different story. The techniques that Dr. He used, called Crispr, were only discovered in 2012. There are many concerns, but the two primary concerns are safety and the fear of playing God, of creating “designer babies.” Let’s take them one at a time.

First, safety. The gene-editing techniques are too new to know whether there might be unintended consequences. It’s possible that when modifying one gene to prevent disease, other modifications are introduced that could make the child more susceptible to other diseases. Dr. He says that this didn’t happen in this case, but gene editing is new even in farm animals, and is untested in humans. There’s no way to know how safe modifying human genes is without more knowledge of gene editing in general.

The second concern is an ethical concern: that this type of research is going to open the door to creating “designer babies.” That essentially means, picking and choosing the traits you want included or excluded in your child’s DNA. This holds promise, but also danger.

Imagine you are a couple and you know it is possible that you might pass along the traits for a terrible disease, such as muscular dystrophy, to your child. Gene editing might give you the hope of removing that genetic trait. If you could do that, you might feel more comfortable having a child naturally between the two of you. The ability to prevent a child from inheriting a genetic disease would be a benefit to humanity. But now imagine that a couple wants to make sure their child doesn’t have, say, autism, or doesn’t want the child to have the genes that would make him or her susceptible to addiction. And now imagine a couple wants to enhance a child’s athletic prowess, his or her athletic ability, or intelligence. And now imagine a government wants to change the genes of a child to make him or her resistant to pain to create a futuristic army of super-humans. Have you seen any of the Jason Bourne movies?

You can see why this is a slippery slope. The scenarios I just described are still far away, but they are less far away than they were before Dr. He’s announcement. The progress of scientific research in this area meant that we would always get to this moment. The world was always going to have to confront the ethical questions around gene editing. We are just going to have to do it a lot sooner now that the age of genetically modified humans is upon us.


Time to say hi to a few listeners. Cesar from Santa Fe, Argentina, wrote to say he’s always liked English, but something always seems to get in the way of making big progress. Hopefully listening to Plain English is the perfect way to make some good progress. I also want to say hi to José and Rolando for sending me notes this week.

So let’s talk about pronunciation real quick. You know, pronunciation is hard because it’s the one thing that you don’t naturally use too much, unless you have a teacher or a conversation partner. At least for me, I find myself reading a lot in Spanish and listening a lot in Spanish—to podcasts and TV shows, movies, things like that. But pronunciation is hard to really practice. One thing I always found was helpful is to actually read out loud. When I was first learning Spanish, I would listen to podcasts with transcripts and then I would go back and read the transcript from the beginning. That was great because I already knew how to pronounce every word: I had listened to the podcast, after all. And that’s something simple and free you all can do as well, since we publish all our transcripts on the web site at PlainEnglish.com. Today’s transcript is at PlainEnglish.com/110, for example.

Another thing you can do is sign up for MosaLingua’s pronunciation course. You’ve heard me talk about MosaLingua before—well, they have this one class just for English learners. They don’t have it in any other language. And here’s what they give you. They tell you the most common pronunciation mistakes that English learners are probably making—you can see if you’re making one of these common mistakes. They give you conversation tips. They let you talk and record yourself. There are exercises, videos, podcasts, audiobooks, flashcards. You’ll learn new techniques. You can explore the course at your own pace—and if you dedicate just 15 minutes a day, they guarantee you will improve. Just 15 minutes a day! So listen, here’s your new plan. You’re going to listen to us on Mondays and Thursdays and you’re going to practice with MosaLingua all the other days. After a few months, you’ll be surprised at your new pronunciation skills. So what are you waiting for? Visit PlainEnglish.com/talk to learn all about the special pronunciation course at MosaLingua. PlainEnglish.com/talk.

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Expression: Slippery slope