Chinese scientist has been widely and vociferously denounced by his peers after claiming to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies.
In a video posted online on Sunday, He Jiankui, a biologist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, describes how he used gene-editing tools to make a pair of healthy twin baby girls, named Lulu and Nana, who will be immune from contracting HIV after he successfully disabled a gene called CCR5.
While He’s claims have not yet been verified, they have already sparked fierce condemnation from his colleagues, both from around the world and in China. Yesterday, an open letter that was signed by 122 Chinese scientists from many of the country’s top institutions was published, castigating He’s claims and calling his experiments pure “madness.”
In the letter, the scientists declared that performing such an experiment on human embryos was “unethical” and dangerous. While gene editing could undoubtedly be used to help humans avoid diseases, meddling with the genome could also lead to unforeseen negative consequences which would then be passed down to future generations. For instance, research suggests that the CCR5 gene that He claims to have disabled in Lulu and Nana protects the body against some diseases and infections.
This is why experiments like the one He claims to have performed are illegal in many countries. Fang Zheng, a Chinese-American biochemist who helped to create the gene-editing technique CRISPR has stepped forward and called for a total moratorium on the making of gene-edited babies.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear what kind of authorization He actually received for his gene editing experiments, if any. Following his announcement of the births of Lulu and Nana, the Southern University of Science and Technology said that it had not given He permission for the experiment, announcing an investigation and suspending him without pay.
The experiment also had reportedly not been registered with the medical ethics commission and one director who apparently signed off on the project has said that his signature may have been fabricated.
For his part, He Jiankui claims that he is not out to make so-called “designer babies” which will allow parents to select for high IQ or certain hair or eye colors. Instead, he says that he wants only to prevent inheritable diseases to save children a lifetime of suffering.
“I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them,” he says in the video.