He Jiankui, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, began his highly-anticipated presentation at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing by apologizing over how the results of his experiment had “leaked unexpectedly” before they could be properly vetted by the scientific community.
On Monday, a video was released in which the Stanford-trained researcher claimed to have created a pair of twins who were immune from contracting HIV through the use of the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR to disable a gene called CCR5.
This revelation was quickly followed by condemnation from He’s peers in China and around the globe with more than 120 of his Chinese colleagues signing a letter which called his experiment “unethical” and pure “madness.”
While on stage, He faced a number of probing questions about his study and the ethics behind it — the latter of which, he doesn’t appear to have greatly considered. Despite the international outrage he had inspired, the scientist said that he was ultimately ”proud” of what he had managed to accomplish.
“I feel proudest because Mark [the father of the twins] thought he had lost hope for life. But with this protection, he sent me a message saying that he will work hard, earn money, and take care of his two daughters and wife,” He told the audience of around 700.
He went on to reveal that there were a total of seven couples who had participated in his study, each with one HIV-positive partner, adding that all of the participants had been warned about the potential risks involved in the gene-editing process and had consented.
When asked if there were more genetically edited babies on the way, He replied, cryptically, “There is another one, another potential pregnancy,” without elaborating further except to say that the pregnancy was still at an early stage.
He also explained that his study, which began three years ago, was partially carried out in secret, without the knowledge of his university, describing how the money for patient care had all come out of his own pocket — though also acknowledging that some of the funds for the project had come from university-provided start-up funding.
Indeed, after He’s results were made public, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen had been quick to disavow all knowledge of the study, announcing an investigation and declaring that He had been suspended without pay.
Similarly, the operator of the Shenzhen hospital where He carried out his study has also said that it was unaware of what He was doing, charging that signatures from ethics committee officials appearing to sign off on the proposal may have been forged.
Finally, in perhaps the worst sign for He, China’s Deputy Minister of Science and Technology said on Tuesday that gene-editing experiments for fertility purposes had been outlawed in China since 2003 and that his ministry was also now launching an investigation into He’s research and activities.
For the time being, He’s project has been halted. Meanwhile, colleagues have put forward a wide range of criticisms of his study, from its secretive and unprofessional nature to the harm it could inflict on participants and humanity in general.
Though gene editing could undoubtedly be used to help humans avoid inherited diseases, experts argue that 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 the twins plays an important role in protecting the body from diseases like the West Nile virus and influenza.
While many are concerned about the colossal moral and ethical questions that arise with the advent of so-called “designer babies,” He insists that his research is only aimed at helping people in need, preventing babies born to HIV positive parents from also suffering from the terrible disease.
“If it was my baby in the same situation. I would try it first,” He replied when asked about whether he would choose to genetically edit his own future child if given the choice.