Chinese Project Claims 1st Genetically Edited Babies, Ignites Moral Outrage

Gwen Vasquez
November 27, 2018

In this October 9, 2018 photo, Zhou Xiaoqin adjusts a monitor showing a video feed of a fine glass pipette containing Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA to an embryo under a microscope at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province.

More than 100 scientists said in an open letter the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to edit the genes of human embryos was risky, unjustified and harmed the reputation and development of the biomedical community in China.

He helped make world's first genetically edited babies: twin girls whose DNA he said he altered.

The scientist's work was carried out in secrecy, and the results were not published in a peer-reviewed journal, prompting some to question the claim.

Some scientists were cautious about denouncing He and his work without knowing more details. "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".

"At this point in time, this is considered unethical", said Goodman. "There are rumours of it happening in China".

Human gene-editing has been a contentious subject of research and debate since related technologies and equipment became widely available in 2015. The scientist revealed the project Monday to the organizers of an worldwide conference that will begin Tuesday in Hong Kong and previously to the AP in exclusive interviews.

Deem did not immediately return ABC News' request for comment.

He Jiankui claims to have help create genetically modified babies.

A regulation released in 2016 by the former National Health and Family Planning Commission - now the National Health Commission - requires health institutions to establish ethics committees with authority over biological or medical research involving humans that would have to approve the research.

Jiankui posted a video to YouTube to discuss the claim and its implications. He said the twins were born a few weeks ago, though the births have yet to be verified. 'No clinical use should happen right now, until there is a broad societal discussion, ' Doudna said in an interview in Hong Kong. "All these questions need to be looked into when we hear what he's actually done", Hynes says. It also obscures the involvement of embryos in gene editing. The contest between Western and Chinese companies to develop powerful AI systems has been likened to the Cold War arms race, due both to the speed of back-and-forth developments and what technologists like Tesla Inc founder Elon Musk warn could be devastating consequences for miscalculation.

Alarmingly, professor He has decided, quite unilaterally, to move ahead with this research, reportedly implanting the modified embryos into the mother's womb-a step considered by most experts to be highly premature and reckless at this stage. Chinese cities are pioneers in marshalling the potential of facial recognition and big data to police the behaviour of their citizens, down to issuing automated fines for offences like jaywalking.

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He has a successful history with genetic editing.

Follow-up tests suggest one of the twins had just one copy of the intended gene adjustment, while the other had both.

The CRISPR tool is a recently developed tool for adding necessary genes or disabling harmful ones to treat diseases in adults, though the USA only allows it to be used in lab research.

"If this was done to avoid HIV infection, there are alternative ways to prevent infection that are already effective", Doudna said, referencing "washing" sperm of infected sperm donors.

"The human genome belongs to all of us and in some sense we all get to have a say", Baylis added.

The Shenzhen scientist is expected to speak about human embryo editing on the Wednesday session of the summit.

China's Genetics Society and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research said in a statement He had acted as an "individual" and his work posed "tremendous safety risks for the research subjects".

The gene editing occurred during IVF, or lab dish fertilization.

What did the Chinese scientist do?

The researcher, He Jiankui, is now also being investigated by his university.

When contacted by the Chinese magazine, a representative of Shenzhen Hanhai Genetic Biology Technology Co.

Speaking to the AP, Dr Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert, said in this particular child, "there really was nearly nothing to be gained in terms of protection against HIV and yet you're exposing that child to all the unknown safety risks", adding that the entire enterprise is "unconscionable" and "an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible".

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