- Chinese researcher He Jiankui claims he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies using a tool called CRISPR, the Associated Press reported.
- He claims the babies – a pair of twin girls – were born this month.
- In a presentation at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, He raised the possibility that a third gene-edited baby may be born as a result of his research.
- There’s still no independent verification of He’s claim, but it drew strong criticism from members of the scientific community.
- More than 100 Chinese scientists signed an open letter condemning the experiment.
A researcher in China has claimed he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies, the Associated Press reported on Monday.
He Jiankui, of Shenzen, said he used gene-editing tool CRISPR on embryos of seven different couples during IVF treatment, resulting in the birth of twin girls this month. He’s goal was to alter the babies’ genes in a way that would protect them from future HIV infection, the report said.
On Wednesday, He spoke about his research at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong and said he felt “proud,” CNN reported.
He also revealed the possibility that another gene-edited baby may be born.
At the summit, He said there is “another one, another potential pregnancy” resulting from his research, according to CNN. He provided no further information about this possible third child, except saying “yes” when asked if the pregnancy was in an early stage, the CNN report added.
He’s claims have not yet been independently verified or published in a scientific journal, according to the AP.
On Wednesday, He said that he has submitted the research to a scientific journal for review but didn’t say which publication, and also apologised for revealing his work “unexpectedly,” CNN reported.
If the claims are true, the research behind them is deeply controversial.
CRISPR is a molecular tool that allows scientists to edit sections of DNA. Many researchers are interested in using the technology to eliminate or treat genetic diseases, as Business Insider previously reported.
When these gene edits are made in an adult, the changes remain confined to that individual, but editing the genes of sperm, eggs, or embryos is fundamentally different because any edits can be inherited, the AP report said.
In this experiment, He (who worked on the project with US scientist Michael Deem) attempted to use CRISPR to disable the CCR5 gene, the AP reported. This gene forms a “doorway” that allows HIV to enter cells, the report added. He told the AP that tests suggest one of the twins had both copies of the gene altered, the other twin had just one of her copies altered, and that there was no evidence of harm to other genes.
But news of He’s claims drew sharp criticism from many scientists, including some co-inventors of CRISPR technology. Here’s a look at how many genetics experts reacted.
The university where He is a faculty member called for an investigation
According to the AP, He opened a laboratory at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen. Though he has been on leave from teaching since early 2018, he remains on the school’s faculty, a spokesman for He confirmed to the AP.
In response to He’s claims, the university issued a statement calling for international experts to form an independent committee, investigate the research, and release the results to the public.
“The University was deeply shocked by this event and has taken immediate action to reach Dr. Jiankui He for clarification,” the statement added.
The statement also said the research was conducted “outside of the campus and was not reported to the University nor the Department.” He “would not say” where the experiment was done, according to the AP.
According to StatNews, the statement said that the school was not aware of the research ahead of time, and added that “this work as described in press reports violates scientific conduct guidelines and is inconsistent with ethical norms of the scientific community and Rice University.”
Deem did not immediately respond to INSIDER’s request for comment.
More than 120 Chinese scientists signed a letter condemning the experiment
In a letter published on the social media site Weibo, more than 120 Chinese scientists called the experiment “crazy” and called for laws and regulations on gene editing. The scientists said He’s procedure is an unfair blow to the reputation of biomedical researchers who follow ethical guidelines in their work.
“The Pandora’s Box has been opened. We need to close it before we lose our last chance,” the scientists wrote, according to a translation by Quartz. “We as biomedical researchers strongly oppose and condemn any attempts on editing human embryo genes without scrutiny on ethics and safety!”
Two co-inventors of CRISPR spoke out against the research, too
“If verified, this work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing,” Doudna, a professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley, said in her statement. “It is essential that this report not cast an untoward shadow on the many important ongoing and planned clinical efforts to use CRISPR technology to treat and cure existing genetic, infectious, and common disease in adults and in children.”
Zhang, a member of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, called for a “moratorium on the implantation of edited embryos … until we have come up with a thoughtful set of safety requirements first.”
“Although I appreciate the global threat posed by HIV, at this stage, the risks of editing embryos to knock out CCR5 seem to outweigh the potential benefits,” he added in a statement provided to the MIT Technology Review. “Not only do I see this as risky, but I am also deeply concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding this trial.”
Other experts called the experiment ‘dangerous,’ ‘reckless,’ and ‘misguided’
Some experts characterised the research as unethical human experimentation.
University of Pennsylvania gene-editing expert Dr. Kiran Musunuru told the AP it is was “unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible.”
“If true, this amounts to unethical and reckless experimentation on human beings, and a grave abuse of human rights,” Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, said in a statement provided to StatNews.
“Today’s report of genome editing human embryos for resistance to HIV is premature, dangerous and irresponsible,” Joyce Harper, a researcher of women’s and reproductive health at the University College London, told Nature.
Some took issue with the apparent goal of editing embryos to prevent future HIV infection, arguing that even if it did work, the gain wouldn’t be worth the substantial risk.
“The lifetime risk of contracting HIV is extremely low in the first place; there are other means of prevention and [HIV] is no longer an incurable, inevitably terminal disease,” Dr. Sarah Chan, a bioethicist at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian. “Putting these children at such drastic risk for such a marginal gain is unjustifiable.”
“There are already entirely appropriate ways to protect children from HIV transmission without changing the genetics,”Ewan Birney, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute, wrote in a blog post published Monday.
Some experts (including Zhang) also expressed concern over the possible negative effects of removing the CCR5 gene. People who lack normal CCR5 genes have a higher risk of contracting some other viruses like West Nile, and of dying from the flu, the AP reported.
“I believe this is a misguided, inappropriate and unethical study,” Birney’s post continued. “It is an entirely inappropriate procedure.”
This post has been updated to include a Rice University statement provided to StatNews, and to include reports of He Jiankui’s presentation at the
Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on November 28.
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