Chinese scientist faces condemnation over claims of gene editing babies

He Jiankui Photo: Baidu

The claims by a Chinese scientist that he had helped make the world's first genetically edited babies has sparked condemnation at home and abroad, and is being investigated by Chinese authorities.

In a video posted online on Monday, He Jiankui, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUST) in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, said his team had successfully altered the CCR5 gene of twin girls born earlier this month in China with a powerful and new tool known as CRISPR, which can insert or deactivate certain genes.

The CCR5 gene is the main receptor in the human body for HIV, the AIDS virus.

"The twin girls, named Lulu and Nana, now have an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV should they ever come into contact with the virus," He said in the video.

He also said his research is aimed at creating children who would not suffer from diseases, rather than making designer babies with bespoke eye color or a high IQ.

"I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I'm willing to take the criticism for them."

He's claims have neither been independently verified nor peer-reviewed. If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

Global outcry

Many scientists were deeply shocked to hear of the claims and strongly condemned He.

"If true, this experiment is monstrous," said Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford. "The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer."

"There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals: for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one does contract it. This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit. In many other places in the world, this would be illegal (and) punishable with imprisonment," Savulescu noted.

Some 122 scientists, most of them in China, on Monday signed a joint statement slamming the experiment as "crazy" and "unfair to other researchers who stick to the moral bottom line."

"The biomedical ethics review for this so-called research exists in name only. Conducting direct human experiments can only be described as crazy," said the statement.

"A Pandora's box has been opened. We still might have a glimmer of hope to close it before it's too late."

Chinese netizens also took to the country's Twitter-like Weibo to criticize He's actions.

"The scenarios of Hollywood blockbusters have become reality," said one Weibo user. "It will encourage the rich to participate in such medical practices, which is unfair to the poor."

"It is definitely a huge blow to Chinese research. I hope the authorities severely punish He," said another.

However, a small number of people also defended gene-editing efforts to fight against HIV.

George Church, a famed geneticist at Harvard University, called the virus "a major and growing public health threat", according to the AP.

"I think this is justifiable," Church said.

Official response

The SUST released a statement on late Monday, saying He has been on leave since February 1.

"The research project was carried out outside the school by Associate Professor He Jiankui. He did not report to the school or the Department of Biology. The university and the department are not aware of it," the statement said, adding that "the Academic Committee of the Department of Biology believes that it seriously violates academic ethics and academic norms."

China's National Health and Family Planning Commission said on Monday it is "highly concerned" and has ordered provincial-level officials "to immediately investigate and verify" the claims made by He.

The Shenzhen Harmonicare Women and Children's Hospital, a medical institution named in He's ethical approval documents, has denied involvement in the experiment.

"We can ensure that the research wasn't conducted in our hospital nor were the babies born here," said a spokesman for the hospital.

The hospital confirmed that two of the doctors named in He's documents work at the hospital and suggested that an internal investigation was ongoing.

The Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission denounced the legitimacy of the hospital's ethics committee and the review process that approved the application.

It confirmed that an investigation was launched on Monday to "verify the authenticity of the ethical review of the research reported by media".

China's Ministry of Science and Technology on Tuesday said gene editing is banned by explicit order in the country.

"If He's claims are confirmed to be true, we will handle this matter in accordance with the law," said a spokesperson for the ministry.

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