Arguments are what counts – not opinions
Professor and genetic researcher Jakob Giehm Mikkelsen from the Department of Biomedicine is about to become a member of the Danish Council on Ethics –at a time when many researchers and laymen have strong opinions about genetic engineering. However, Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen is personally more interested in arguments rather than personal viewpoints – and he does not feel the need to have his own DNA analysed.
A few months ago, the Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had created HIV-resistant twin girls using the genetic technology CRISPR – and that he was the first to do this. The criticism from researchers and experts was widespread and virtually identical: the experiment carried out by China’s ‘Frankenstein’ was immoral and irresponsible.
If you ask Professor Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen – newly-appointed member of the Danish Council on Ethics – for his opinion on the experiment, then you will get a slightly different type of answer. He much prefers fundamental arguments instead of judgements and personal opinions, and this holds true even though he agrees with the criticism of He Jiankui’s premature foetus experiments. As he says:
"What interests me are arguments. What supports us going down a given path? And, on the other hand, what are the risks? Arguments are both more important and more interesting than personal opinions about what’s right and wrong. Though there are, of course, specific advisory tasks associated with being on the Danish Council of Ethics," says Giehm Mikkelsen, who will participate in his first Danish Council on Ethics meeting on 28 February.
Not going to be an opinion vending machine
“I’ve considered whether I could end up being publicly viewed as that genetic researcher who just comes up with simplistic ‘answers’ to some of the really big ethical dilemmas – because that’s certainly not where I want to end up. Journalists are welcome to call me just as they’ve already been doing for years, and I’m happy to contribute to discussions in areas where things are developing in a previously unknown direction, because we’re able to do so much technologically where we can’t understand the consequences. But it will annoy me if my work on the council comes to focus on what I personally think about different topics,” says Giehm Mikkelsen.
The 49-year-old professor from the Department of Biomedicine is head of a group which, among other things, carries out research into the use of virus to transport genetic material into tissue and cells in order to fight disease. The technique has been successful with haemophilia which is today cured by an injection of virus particles that subsequently themselves make their own way to the liver and deliver a healthy copy of the diseased gene.
"For people like me who work with gene therapy, the genetic treatment of haemophilia is what comes closest to the ‘Holy Grail' and has also attracted investment and generated interest – also among the big foundations," explains Giehm Mikkelsen.
An apprentice at Kay's super laboratory
As a young researcher, Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen was fortunate to be able to work closely with Professor Mark Kay at Stanford University in California back in 2001-2003. At that time, Kay and his super laboratory led the way in research into gene therapy as a treatment for haemophilia, and this work had an impact on his own career.
Another important mentor who impacted his research career is Giehm Mikkelsen's long-standing supervisor and ‘molecular-biological father’, Professor Finn Skou Pedersen from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, where Giehm Mikkelsen was both PhD and postdoc. He was subsequently tempted to apply for a job at Health and the Department of Biomedicine, where he was appointed associate professor in 2003 – strongly encouraged by professor and current department head Thomas G. Jensen, who back then was a rank-and-file fellow researchers.
Today, research into methods that can alter hereditary material is moving in new directions, as exemplified by the genetically manipulated Chinese twins. Until the Chinese researcher broke the news of his human experiment at a conference in Hong Kong, the common perception was that the technique was only tested in the very earliest embryonic stages, which in itself caused a lot of debate.
“There are many arguments in favour of treating people suffering from diseases with well-proven genetic methods, but very few in favour of editing the foetal genome,” says Giehm Mikkelsen. He emphasises that CRISPR involves making significant technical steps from the adding of a gene with virus as a transporter to actually altering the mutation directly by (in popular terminology) ‘cutting’ in the genome with a self-propelled pair of molecular 'scissors'.
"Obviously, delivering a tool is different to delivering a gene, so at present the work being done – also here in Aarhus – revolves around finding out how we can get these molecular scissors to cut into the DNA and then disappear again. The challenge lies in preventing a tool from causing damage in the long term, or from starting to cut in the wrong places in the genome. So the method has to be perfected before we begin using it on humans,” says Giehm Mikkelsen, who be the way participates in the Danish Council on Ethics’s teaching material on CRISPR: www.etiskraad.dk/crispr
Malaria-free mosquitoes and personal DNA
Another example of a pressing ethical dilemma is the on-going work of genetically modifying mosquitoes so they can no longer pass on malaria. In this case, some people might say that it is actually unethical not to introduce treatment of a deadly disease. Others will point out that mosquitoes are unaware of both national borders and malaria boundaries and that we simply do not know what effect genetically modified mosquitos could have on the food chain.
“And then we return to the fact that arguments will always be more interesting than personal opinions. Not least if you want to influence a decision," says Giehm Mikkelsen, who is not only looking forward to getting to know the other sixteen members of the council who have very varied backgrounds. He is also looking forward to getting closer to the politicians and thereby also the legislative process.
"A development like this raises some pressing questions about what a person has the right to know about themselves and their parents, and just as interestingly, what others – ranging from researchers to insurance companies – can use genetic information for. But personally I don’t feel the need to get my DNA analysed,” he says.
Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen – in brief
- Born: Aalborg in North Jutland in 1969
- PhD in Molecular Biology in 1998, employed as a professor at Aarhus University since 2015
- Married to Tina Riis Mikkelsen, two children – Tobias (22) and Tilde (19)
- Lives in Silkeborg