HERE’S a pair of bouncing, blooming new babies, liberated from being vulnerable to a stigmatising disease. There’s a relative, partner or friend in the grip of incessant pain, caused by a heritable genetic condition.

Ensuring the former, and eradicating the latter, is what the current cutting edge of medical genetics promises. Yet we are still as fearful of “playing God with biology” as we ever were.

This week saw the passing of Ian Wilmut who, with his team at Edinburgh University, created the first mammal cloned from an adult cell (the infamous Dolly the Sheep) in 1996. It reminds us of Scotland’s key role in the advance – however tentative – of genetic engineering.

Many of the scare stories raised by Dolly are often centred on the potential for producing “copycat embryos” for test and experiment. Pro-lifers (from George W Bush downwards) furiously opposed it.

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The scientists originally looked to extract “stem cells” from these embryos. These stem cells could be triggered to grow into transplantable organs, or unique medicines, perfectly tailored to their original human sources. But must stem cells be taken from cloned proto-babies? Cue stramash. Yet this specific scare was eventually invented away.

Shinya Yamanaka gained a Nobel Prize, in 2012, for discovering “induced pluripotent” stem cells. This was material that could be taken from biological adults – thus relieving the need to make embryos.

In 2016, speaking to Scientific American, Yamanaka gave full credit to Wilmut for inspiration. “Dolly the Sheep told me reprogramming [of the cell’s nucleus] is possible even in mammalian cells, and encouraged me to start my own project.”

Wilmut was genial, bearded and parka-wearing, described by his biographer Roger Highfield as having “the face of a bank clerk”. So he was a comforting front man for what remains, even today, the most revolutionary possibility: shaping and designing humans and animals at their genetic and cellular level.

These days, the leading genetics story in town is the continuing activity of He Jiankui (or “JK”, as he likes to be called), the Chinese researcher who enabled the first-ever genetically-edited humans, with the births of the pseudonymous twins Lulu and Nana in November 2018.

JK was jailed for three years by the Chinese government in 2019, for breaking their national bio-regulations. He has been rendered persona-non-grata by many of his fellow genetics scientists.

The National: Dolly the Sheep creator Sir Ian Wilmut says 'Noah's Ark' of cloned stem cells could halt extinctions

At the beginning of this month, as The New Yorker’s Dana Goodyear reports, JK is now released and setting up new labs at the Wuchang University of Technology, his title “director of the Institute of Genetic Medicine”. All this based in – believe it or not – Wuhan.

But He’s crime, as the New Yorker feature painstakingly shows, was only to have been a few steps ahead of where many scientists in the field want to be. Such “reprogramming” of life is continuous with Wilmut’s discovery – not some monstrous break with it.

The crucial biotech tool here is the CRISPR method, for which Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize for Biology in 2020. CRISPR is a viral DNA found in E.coli. Often compared to a pair of scissors, CRISPR can snip away at parts of a DNA sequence. Doudna and Charpentier created a protein which could help target these “blades” with considerable precision.

What He did was to use CRISPR to “cut out” a gene called CCR5 from the DNA sequence of these human embryos. CCR5 is known to increase human receptivity to HIV/Aids (the parents were HIV-positive, a badly-regarded disease in China, and wanted their children to live a life free from that judgement).

JK’s own goal, given to him on notepaper by James Watson (the original co-discoverer of DNA with Francis Crick) was posted to the wall of his office. It read “Make People Better”. He’s ambition was to edit humans genes so you can stop the heritable “germline” of a condition.

You don’t want to just fix it within someone’s unhealthy body (or “somatically”, in the biologists’ jargon), you want to entirely remove the condition from, and for, future generations.

But does this slide into “Making Better People”? That is, does it raise the chilling prospect of eugenics, or a “biological overclass”? It could all too easily, say many of the scientists Goodyear interviews in her feature.

A gene editing expert, Fyodor Urnov, provides the scariest quote. It’s all too easy for heritable editing to be used for “non-therapeutic modifications”, says Urnov (or “human enhancement”). He gives us three “use-case scenarios which we should be very afraid about”.

“Fear number one: the weaponisation of the military. We know how to make a human being who runs on four hours of sleep – I can tell you what mutation to make.

“Two: We know what gene to edit to reduce pain sensation. If I were a rogue nation wishing to engineer a next generation of quasi-pain-free special-forces soldiers, I know exactly what to do. It’s all published. And three: physical strength. You don’t need a large lab operation. You just need the ill-will.”

READ MORE: Dolly the Sheep creator Sir Ian Wilmut says 'Noah's Ark' of cloned stem cells could halt extinctions

Shudder. Nevertheless, there is something consistent and admirable about how genetic biologists can terrify themselves into self-regulation. Often well ahead of the laws of governments (or the pitchforks of the people).

When gene-splicing between species was made possible in the 70s, the Asilomar conference of 1976 saw a global collection of scientists – gathering even across Cold War lines – impose tight and mutually-monitored controls on such experiments. They feared superbugs and other abnormalities.

The CRISPR generation of scientists have already been convening rigorously. Yet the accuracy of these genetic scissors becomes ever greater (though they can currently still leave a messy “mosaic” of cut and uncut DNA).As they get sharper, the next step – for which He Jiankui has become something of a scapegoat – is likely to be taken.

One scientist talking to Goodyear describes a “moral force-field that’s bound to weaken as the science gets better … There will come a moment when all the big questions have been answered, and where a doctor is facing a patient.”

As with so many of the existential risks we face, such god-like tools require at least a Solomonic wisdom. Are we even remotely capable of that? For example, we should worry that JK’s self-justification for his human editing was partly about removing the stigma of HIV from infected Chinese families. That seems back to front. Surely it’s such social prejudices that should be just as open to re-engineering?

We also have societies where wealthy elites are building a separate and defensible world from the rest of us. The idea their offspring might benefit from a growing menu of “human enhancements” comes from the bottom of the science-fictional barrel but it could be all too real.

From his new Wuhan fastness, He Jiankui aims to take CRISPR’s blades to the gene sequences that give rise to Alzheimer’s and Duchenne muscular dystrophy (a fatal disease causing unstoppable muscle damage among boys). Should we wish him well? It feels wrong not to grant him some success.

Ian Wilmut was eventually beset himself by Parkinson’s. He noted in a 2019 interview: “I think that unexpectedly the Dolly experiment has revolutionized the approach to these inherited diseases. I really do genuinely believe that treatments will come along but it may very well be 50 years before the treatment becomes routinely available.

“So people like me will probably have died of Parkinson’s disease before the new treatments become available. Which is a frustrating thing to think.”

Yes, that’s how a bank clerk might put it. But perhaps we need more the thoughtful woolly jumper-wearer, than the brash “biological entrepreneur” for this next stage of Dolly’s legacy.