Shenzhen-based scientist He Jiankui made a bombshell announcement on November 26, claiming that himself and his research team had successfully created the world’s first gene-edited babies. The declaration, as you could probably guess, has sparked outrage amongst the global science community.
The backlash is mainly centered around longstanding ethical questions in regards to manipulating human genes before (and after) birth. Others have expressed concern for both the safety of the human gene pool and the recently born infants, female twins, long-term health.
Named Lulu and Nana, the twins were genetically modified before birth using the CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing tool to make them resistant to the HIV virus.
According to He, the father of the genetically modified babies is an HIV carrier and was elated when the babies “came crying into the world a few weeks ago as healthy as any other babies.”
He’s shock announcement came just one day before an international summit on genome editing, which kicked off in Hong Kong on November 27. He was supposed to attend the event to present his latest research data, although he has not shown up for the summit, according to Southern Metropolis Daily.
Photo of Professor He Jiankui. Image via qq.com
Calling the gene surgery “another IVF advancement,” He believes that the technology can bring hope to families with inheritable diseases, helping to prevent them from being passed down to their offspring. He added that, despite the controversies, gene surgery should “remain a technology for healing.”
Just a few hours after the news was released, 122 scientists from universities around the world, including Peking University, Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, jointly released a statement on Weibo that strongly denounced the use of genome-editing on humans. They said the technology was nothing new but still has its flaws and risks, criticizing He for crossing the ethical line and describing his research as “insane.”
The Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology, where He works as an associate professor, denied any involvement in He’s research in a statement released later that day. The university said they had not been aware of the research project as it was conducted by He’s team outside the university and was never reported to them.
Currently, China’s National Health Commission has requested an immediate investigation into the case after the hospital at which He claimed to have obtained his approval documents denied having been involved in the research, according to CNN.
Though the research may seem to some like a groundbreaking step in the fight against HIV, the potential consequences could be dire, as proposed by the late physicist Professor Stephen Hawking.
Professor Hawking, who predicted that humans would discover ways to “modify intelligence and instincts” in this century, warned against such genetic modification, voicing the possibility that gene engineering could give rise to a new species of human that might lead to the destruction of the rest of humanity.
So far, there’s been no evidence to confirm whether the babies have indeed been born, according to Wall Street China. He's PR representative said He will not accept interview requests from the media at present due to privacy concerns, but that he will release a statement in the days to come.
[Cover image via Sina.com]