In our day to day life, we face an array of holdups especially when we are expected to make certain ethical decisions. Scientists and researchers are not an exception. Although sometimes it is difficult to classify the difference between ethics and morality, Prof. Anne Muigai, a Professor of Genetics at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, said it is paramount for researchers to uphold ethics and morals in the course of their work.
She revealed this during her public lecture presentation, titled; “Through the eyes of a Geneticist: My Journey as an Academic and Researcher,” delivered to staff and students of JKUAT Botany Department, October 16, 2019.
Giving insights on her role as a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory committee on developing global standards for governance and oversight of human genome editing, Prof. Muigai said there are many applications of gene editing especially in plants and animals but strict rules and regulations need to be developed for human genome editing.
“It is true that human genome editing has great potential but delving into it without proper ratified laws and technologies that are accepted globally, would be disastrous to say the least,” said Prof. Muigai.
She gave an example of He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, who in November 2018, revealed that he had created the first “gene-edited babies” making them resistant to HIV, smallpox and cholera. Beyond the scientific research, Prof. Muigai said Jiankui ignored all the potential negative consequences related to his work.
The revelation raised a flurry of reactions and arguments, and also demonstrated some deep uncertainties surrounding the risks and implications of research on human genome editing. This led to the formation of the WHO advisory committee comprising of 18 global multi-disciplinary professionals to examine the scientific, ethical, social and legal challenges associated with human genome editing; both somatic and germ cell.
Prof. Muigai, informed her audience that for Africa, the committee is working with the African Union in the development of guidelines for human gene editing to be observed by her member states.
While a section of the audience argued that in science, reward matches the risk, the Molecular Population Geneticist, said scientists need to conduct their research in a sound and moral way based on laid down ethical principles governing their areas of research.
She encouraged them to participate in multi-disciplinary collaborative research to maximize on its potential, citing her research work in collaboration with other researchers on the discovery of fossilised bones of a group of prehistoric hunter-gatherers who were violently killed approximately 10,000 years ago in Nataruk, 30 km West of Lake Turkana, Kenya.
“To ensure proper finding of our research work and get accurate data of the situ skeletons in the lagoons we had to employ the services of a geologist,” stated Prof. Muigai.
Prof. Muigai’s lecture is the first in a series of public lectures being organised by the Department of Botany led by the Chairman, Dr. Moses K. Gichua.