Scientist Who Gene-Edited Babies Speaks at Conference, Addresses Controversial Research
Dec 02 2018
The announcement drew a firestorm of criticism from around the world as being technologically premature, possibly harmful in unforeseen ways to the babies, and unjustified because there are more efficient and safer ways to prevent HIV infections. However, his work has not been verified. Its risks are unknown, and leading scientists have called for a moratorium on its use except in lab studies until more is learned.
China on Thursday ordered to stop the work that led to the birth of gene-edited twins. He claimed to have paid for the entire process, besides some sequencing costs covered by startup funding at his university, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen (which has denied all knowledge of his work on the twins).
And Rice University in the United States said it will investigate the involvement of physics professor Michael Deem. University officials said they had no knowledge of his research and had launched an investigation.
He Jiankui at the conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
The twin girls, identified by the aliases Lulu and Nana to hide their identities, were said to have been born a few weeks ago in a hospital in Shenzhen, southern China. Eight volunteer couples - HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers - signed up to the trial, with one dropping out before it was put on hold.
He added that he had submitted his research to a scientific journal for review and had not expected to be presenting it at the conference.
"I must apologise this result was leaked unexpectedly", he said of the apparent breakthrough.
Why is it this controversial?
Shenzhen Harmonicare Medical Holdings Limited, named as being involved in He's project in China's clinical trial registry, sought to distance itself by stating the hospital never participated in any operations relating to the gene-edited babies and no related delivery had taken place.
It works by using "molecular scissors" to alter a very specific strand of DNA - either cutting it out, replacing it or tweaking it.
Upon questioning, He even dropped this bombshell: "There is another one, another potential pregnancy", suggesting that there could be a second pregnancy with gene-edited babies.
Instead of altering a gene, they turned off a genetic instruction essential for early embryo development to see how that affected growth.
The scientist says he felt a strong responsibility that it was not just to make a first but make it an example, and society will decide what to do next in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.
Professor Julian Savulescu, an ethics expert at the University of Oxford, said if true "this experiment is monstrous".
Dr. He told his colleagues he conducted his research in secret.
Looking pale and sounding anxious, He told the audience he was proud of his gene editing work. Cloning is illegal in China, but the rules around the genetic editing of human embryos are less clear.
Xu had said earlier that Chinese regulations issued in 2003 permitted gene-editing experiments on embryos for research purposes, but only if they remained viable for no more than 14 days.