China Halts Gene Editing Program Trying to Create HIV-Immune Twins

Friday, 30 Nov, 2018

A woman is already pregnant with the next CRISPR baby, according to He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who claims to have already created the world's first genetically edited babies.

"I must apologize, this result was leaked unexpectedly", He Jiankui told a Hong Kong medical conference on Wednesday, as cited by AFP.

The work is highly controversial because the changes can be inherited and could go on to harm other genes, and is banned in many countries.

The main objection to He's supposed gene-editing of Nana and Lulu boils down to one simple fact: messing with a human's genes is incredibly risky and inhumane, mostly because we don't fully understand how it works.

Last September, scientists at Sun Yat-sen University used an adapted version of gene-editing to correct a disease-causing mutation in human embryos.

Southern University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC) associate professor He Jiankui revealed via a YouTube video on Monday that he and his research team used modified embryos to produce a pair of healthy twin sisters this month.

Scientist He Jiankui attends the International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong
Scientist He Jiankui attends the International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong

Speaking at the Second International Summit On Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, He, a professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said that the pregnancy is at an early stage, the AP notes. He did not name the journal and said his university was unaware of his study. When asked whether their genotype might affect their upbringing, he said, "I don't have to answer this question".

He said the case showed "there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community" and said the conference committee would meet and issue a statement on Thursday about the future of the field.

He, who said his work was self-funded, shrugged off concerns that the research was conducted in secrecy, explaining that he had engaged the scientific community over the past three years.

The umbrella of 22 national-level associations said human gene editing "severely disturbed the order of scientific research and seriously damaged China's global reputation in the life science field".

According to The Guardian, China's National Health Commission has ordered an investigation into He's claims, while the Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission has begun examining the ethics of the study.

People and institutions involved in the matter have "brazenly challenged the bottom line of scientific research ethics and desecrated the spirit of science", said Huai. 'They need this protection since a vaccine is not available, ' he said. As scientists from around the world voiced their criticism, the Chinese government ordered an immediate investigation into He's claims. Other prominent researchers, such as Harvard's George Chruch, said that he thinks attempting gene editing to prevent HIV is "justifiable". "Only found out about it after it happened and the children were born", Baltimore said.