The controversial biologist behind the world’s first gene-edited babies, He Jiankui, finally appeared at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on November 28, answering questions from both the science community and the media.
In a video released two days before the summit, He announced that he had successfully helped create the world’s first gene-edited babies, Lulu and Nana, by altering the CCR5 gene in the embryos to make them immune to the HIV virus, a deed that led to criticism from around the world.
When asked whether there were any more pregnancies with embryos that had been genome-edited, He revealed that there is indeed another potential pregnancy, which is a chemical pregnancy still in its early stages. No further details were given.
The researcher kicked off his speech by making an ‘unapologetic’ apology for letting the experiment’s results leak “unexpectedly,” before they were brought to a scientific venue or a peer review could be conducted. But he added that the study had been submitted to an unnamed scientific journal for review.
Professor He revealed that there were initially eight couples who volunteered to participate in the experiment, with one of the couples dropping out later on. As for the how He managed to convince the remainder to partake in the experiment, the researcher said there was an informed consent process and that scientists conducted two meetings to explain the procedure to the participating couples, who are “well-educated” and fully understood the risks, as well as the latest advancements in AIDS-related studies.
Image via CCTV.com
Despite the ongoing storm of controversy, He believes that his research was for a good cause, saying that there was a “serious unmet need” because there are millions of HIV Exposed Uninfected (HEU) children and vaccination for the HIV virus is not available.
“I have personal experience with people in a village where 30 percent of the villagers were infected and they had to give their children to relatives or uncles to raise just to prevent potential transmission,” said He, when he was asked about the necessity of the gene procedure.
He then went on, saying “I feel proud, actually… proudest,” because Mark, the gene-edited-babies’ father and a HIV patient, had lost his hope for life until the babies were born. He explained that Mark sent him a message following the babies’ birth, saying that he would work hard, earn money and take care of his daughters and wife throughout the rest of his life.
In terms of his future responsibility towards to the babies, He responded that they will keep monitoring their health until they are 18 years old and that they would make all the data and progress transparent and available for public review on their website (although when That's tried to visit the site, it could not be opened). He added that the identities of the twin babies will be kept a secret.
When asked whether he would considering conducting the experiment if it were his own children, He responded, “If my babies were in the same situation, I would try them first.”
Still, He’s ambition failed to impress the global science community. Robin Lovell Badge, the summit's host and a biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, said He “was misguided and has taken wrong advice,” adding that this is a step backwards, instead of a breakthrough.
David Baltimore, a Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, said that it’s irresponsible of He to proceed with his experimentation until the safety issues have been addressed and until the practice has gained broad societal consensus.
Furthermore, the National Institute of Health also released a statement, expressing their deep concerns about He’s work, describing He and his team’s willingness to disregard international ethical norms as “disturbing.”
[Cover image via CCTV.com]