‘I feel proud’: Chinese scientist doubles down in CRISPR baby defence

28 Nov 2018

Still from ‘About Lulu and Nana: Twin Girls Born Healthy After Gene Surgery As Single-Cell Embryos’ Image: The He Lab/YouTube

Pushing the ethics of science to the limit, a Chinese scientist is defending his decision to produce babies with edited CRISPR genes.

As we have reported on a number of times in recent years and months, the science behind the gene-editing tool referred to as CRISPR has been deemed revolutionary, but it remains at a developmental level and it might be too early to tell of its ramifications.

For example, some research has found that its splicing of harmful DNA from the genome could lead to unintended, negative consequences elsewhere in our genetic code. Meanwhile, other research suggests that the vast majority of humans may be immune to its affects in its current form.

However, earlier this week, the scientific world was stunned by claims made by Chinese scientist He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUST) in Shenzhen that he had successfully – and secretly – produced two children whose genomes had been modified using CRISPR to make them resistant to HIV.

The fallout from this has been swift, with one of CRISPR’s co-inventors, Feng Zhang, going as far as to call for a moratorium on using it for editing embryos in IVF treatment. Fellow co-inventor Dr Jennifer Doudna strongly criticised He’s claims, saying it could damage future research using CRISPR to treat and cure diseases in humans.

In response, He announced today (28 November) at the International Genome Editing Summit that he felt “proud” of the same accomplishment that some scientists have described as an “appalling act that threatens to set back the field of therapeutic genome editing”.

‘Seriously violates ethical and academic standards’

In fact, rather than backing down, the scientist said he has already started another study involving a different pregnant woman who will likely give birth to a child whose embryo was edited using CRISPR. His only apology was for announcing the latest results prior to the work being peer-reviewed.

Aside from receiving international criticism, He is also reportedly facing investigation in his native China from the Shenzhen City Medical Ethics Expert Board. In a statement, the board said that according to its findings, the hospital involved “never conducted the appropriate reporting according to requirements”.

SUST president Chen Shiyi distanced the university completely from He’s actions, saying it had no knowledge of the study, which it claims “seriously violates ethical and academic standards and regulations”.

He’s latest talk to the major summit received considerable attention from academics and journalists, with security guards positioned near the front of the auditorium prior to and during the talk.

Again trying to ease concerns, He said that the twins – Lulu and Nana – will be monitored over the next 18 years and that the researcher hoped “that they will consent as adults for continued monitoring and support”.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic