Chinese researcher claims world's first gene-edited babies' birth, sparking global uproar
Chinese researcher He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen has claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies – twin girls, “Lulu” and “Nana.” This announcement has sparked global outcry and condemnation from both researchers and bioethicists.
Using the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing tool, Jiankui claims to have disabled CCR5, a gene that allows a cell to get infected with HIV. He reportedly has altered seven embryos during fertility treatments and only one pregnancy has resulted in the birth of the twins. The twins, whose father is HIV positive, are healthy, said Jainkui in a video posted on YouTube. He stated that the goal behind his work was to offer couples with HIV a chance to have children. “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 added.
Jiankui’s claims have so far remained unconfirmed since the findings have not been independently tested. However, his claims have been met with severe backlash from most researchers as the effects of gene editing in humans is still unclear and it is banned in most countries. “If true, this experiment is monstrous,” said Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford.
Southern University of Science and Technology, the institution that Jiankui is associated with, claims to have no knowledge of this work. They released a statement that Jiankui’s study was not carried out in the university and that he has been on leave for the most part of the year. Additionally, the university stated that it aims to investigate the matter to ensure that their faculty abides by international ethical standards. Moreover, the hospital where Jiankui’s work was carried out has stated that their ethical approval was forged.
Jiankui’s controversial work has attracted sharp criticism from Chinese biomedical researchers, too. 120 researchers issued a joint statement on Chinese social media reproving his work. “This is a huge blow to the international reputation and the development of Chinese science, especially in the field of biomedical research,” it stated.
Owing to the international outcry, China’s National Health Commission – the governmental agency that is responsible for public healthcare – has instructed its officials to investigate Jiankui’s claims. However, Jiankui’s work does not trespass any laws as China does not explicitly ban these studies.
Jiankui’s announcement came ahead of Human Genome Editing Summit, an international event that is currently in session in Hong Kong to come to a consensus on how the research on gene editing should be furthered. Jiankui spoke at length at this conference about his work. "For this case, I feel proud. I feel proudest," he said to an audience of 700. He confirmed that his study was self-funded and that he has submitted his work to a peer-reviewed journal. Jiankui also revealed that he would be monitoring the twins’ health until they become adults.
In the meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether Jiankui’s work would work as a catalyst to create international ethical guidelines for germline editing.