The scientific community is now in turmoil after a Chinese geneticist claimed that to have gene edited human embryos to make them resistant to HIV.
On Monday, Chinese geneticist He Jiankui claimed to have gene edited human embryos, sending the entire scientific community in an uproar. He made the announcement on the eve of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong.
To date, experimental gene-editing procedures are carried out by researchers around the world to explore the healing potentials of altering the human genome. However, He’s claim became controversial after reporting that the embryos eventually developed and resulted in the delivery of twin girls.
Many scientists were disturbed by the announcement due to two primary reasons. First, He has not published a research paper about his CRISPR experiment in any journal that academic peers can review. This move is unusual for a scientist who’s proudly speaking about groundbreaking scientific development.
Second, while gene-editing human embryos for research purposes is allowed in a few countries, bringing the embryos to term is strongly condemned and is deemed illegal in many nations, including the United States.
The Gene-Edited Human Embryos
“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Society will decide what to do next.”
According to He, he altered the embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments. One of the seven couples successfully resulted in pregnancy. The Chinese researcher reported that his goal is not to cure or prevent any inherited disease. This is unusual as that is considered the primary purpose of CRISPR.
Instead, He said that he altered the genes of the embryos to make them resistant to HIV in the future. The babies were reportedly delivered weeks ago. The parents involved in the experiment refused to be identified or interviewed. He also didn’t disclose where they live or where he conducted the procedure.
The men who participated in He’s research study are all HIV positive while the women are not. He allegedly wanted to offer each HIV couple a chance to have a child that would potentially be protected from having the same disease.
In total, He reportedly edited 16 out of 22 embryos. Eleven embryos were used in six implant attempts until the twins were conceived successfully. He’s test revealed that one of the twins obtained both copies of the altered gene while the other only had one. There was also no evidence that the procedure harmed other genes.
Criticism From Experts
Some experts suggested that He’s purpose is to test the editing procedure and not to avoid the disease. They questioned why the Chinese researcher allowed the gene-edited human embryos to be used in pregnancy attempts. They were also concerned the He knew that both copies of the intended gene had not been altered.
“In that child, there really was almost nothing to be gained in terms of protection against HIV and yet you’re exposing that child to all the unknown safety risks,” Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a gene-editing expert from the University of Pennsylvania said.
Following He’s announcement, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China denied any knowledge of the geneticist’s works.
“The Southern University of Science and Technology strictly requires scientific research to abide by and comply with international academic ethics and academic norms in accordance with national laws and regulations,” a part of the statement reads.
The university has also launched an investigation about He’s works to verify the validity of his claims.