Chinese researcher Dr He Jainkui claims to have helped create the world’s first genetically edited babies.
He claims to have altered the DNA of twin girls born earlier this month with a powerful new gene-editing tool called CRISPR-cas9, which allows scientists to adjust DNA to add or disable genes at a whim.
While the claim is unsubstantiated at the moment, if it’s true, it raises a whole bevy of new questions surrounding science, gene-editing and ethics.
He, who conducts research in Shenzhen, told Associated Press that he has edited embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with only one resulting in pregnancy so far.
He didn’t edit the genes to cure or prevent an inherited disease – something CRISPR is often associated with – but was rather trying to make individuals resistant to the AIDS virus.
For He’s groundbreaking claim to be confirmed, his research would have to be published in a journal and be evaluated by other experts in the field.
He announced his breakthrough in Hong Kong to one of the organisers of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, which began on November 27.
“I feel strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” he told AP News.
“Society will decide what to do next,” he says, in terms of the ethical implications of gene editing.
Here’s how He described the gene editing process:
“The gene editing occurred during IVF, or lab dish fertilization. First, sperm was “washed” to separate it from semen, the fluid where HIV can lurk. A single sperm was placed into a single egg to create an embryo. Then the gene editing tool was added.
“When the embryos were 3 to 5 days old, a few cells were removed and checked for editing. Couples could choose whether to use edited or unedited embryos for pregnancy attempts. In all, 16 of 22 embryos were edited, and 11 embryos were used in six implant attempts before the twin pregnancy was achieved.”
However, if He was expecting the red carpet to be rolled out for him, he would be wrong. Leading scientists are less than impressed with his claims.
“It looks like the researcher involved wanted to be the first rather than waiting to be safe,” said Dr Ainsley Newson, an Associate Professor of Bioethics at the University of Sydney.
“Editing the DNA of healthy embryos to reduce the risk of contracting HIV is neither necessary nor appropriate.
“Every position statement that I’ve seen globally has condemned the editing of human embryos for reproductive use at this point in time. What seems to have happened would be illegal in Australia and carries a criminal penalty here.”
Dr Hannah Brown, an expert in reproductive biology and Chief Science Storyteller at The South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute had similar “grave concerns”.
“To edit a gene unnecessarily, for which there are evidence-based, safe and affordable solutions (protected sex) is irresponsible and dangerous,” Dr Brown said.
Dr Yalda Jamshidi, Senior Lecturer in Human Genetics at St George’s University of London also commented.
“We know very little about the long term effects, and most people would agree that experimentation on humans for an avoidable condition just to improve our knowledge is morally and ethically unacceptable,” Dr Jamshidi said.
In China, gene editing operates under far more relaxed conditions than it does in countries like Australia, England and the US. Such DNA changes can pass on to future generations and risk harming other genes.
Simply, in the Western world, the technology is still too dangerous to try.
While some may laud what He’s potentially achieved as remarkable, it is certainly a morally and ethically dubious undertaking. Scientists are unanimous in their conviction that the emphasis was on testing gene editing rather than avoiding the HIV disease.
There are also concerns over how He undertook the research. He only gave official notice of his work on November 8, long after he had started his work.
It is also doubtful that participants in the trial understood the full purpose of it and the massive potential risks. The consent forms simply referred to the project as an “AIDS vaccine development” program.
Then there’s the very real limits to what CRISPR can achieve. It can delete and rearrange large parts of DNA and endanger human health, and recent studies have shown that CRISPR-edited cells can trigger cancer.
Yet He has gone for the Band-Aid approach and jumped straight to gene-editing human embryos, rather than being cautious and considered.
Many scientists will undoubtedly be hoping that his claims prove unfounded because, if true, it sets a dangerous precedent for medical research in China.
Regardless, He defended his actions: “I believe this is going to help the families and their children.”
A 2017 report found that “genome editing for enhancement should not be allowed at this time”.
CRISPR and gene-editing technology has the potential to eradicate horrible genetic diseases and enhance human capabilities.
It will, inevitably, push humanity forward into new horizons, but at the moment it is simply not ready to do so – regardless of He’s belief.