Chinese researcher He Jiankui from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, shocked the scientific community and the world at large on Monday (Nov 26) when he announced that he had successfully created the planet’s first genetically-altered human babies.
Jiankui’s claims were neither backed by any independent substantiation nor had the findings been published in any scientific journal where it could be scrutinized by experts in the field.
His work, which academics say is “unconscionable” and of “grave ethical concern”, also flouts the stringent rules governing the use of gene-editing techniques on humans.
His university has claimed ignorance about the experiment, saying the researcher had been on unpaid leave since February, and that the university would soon initiate an investigation into the matter.
Speaking to state-run media outlet China Central Television (CCTV), China’s vice minister of science and technology, Xu Nanping, condemned Jiankui’s research, saying it was unethical and in stark violation of the country’s laws governing the subject.
“The genetically edited infant incident reported by media blatantly violated China’s relevant laws and regulations,” CCTV quoted the minister as saying on Thursday.
“It has also violated the ethical bottom line that the academic community adheres to,” Xu told the news outlet, adding that it was “shocking and unacceptable” and that the Chinese government was “resolutely opposed to it.”
Although he said his ministry had ordered an investigation, he did not highlight specific actions taken by the government.
Jiankui’s Monday announcement sent shockwaves across the scientific community, prompting several scientists to condemn the researcher’s genetic experimentation with human embryos.
Dr. Sarah Chan, a bioethicist at the University of Edinburgh, said the experiment was “of grave ethical concern,” if there was any truth in the claim.
“Whether or not the veracity of these reports is eventually borne out, making such claims in a way that seems deliberately designed to provoke maximum controversy and shock value is irresponsible and unethical,” The Guardian quoted Dr. Chan as saying.
“The claim made by those responsible for the research is that the babies have been genome-edited in an attempt to make them immune to HIV,” she added.
“The lifetime risk of contracting HIV is extremely low in the first place; there are other means of prevention and it is no longer an incurable, inevitably terminal disease,” said Dr. Chan, adding that “putting these children at such drastic risk for such a marginal gain is unjustifiable.”
“If true, this experiment is monstrous. The embryos were healthy – no known diseases,” Prof. Julian Savulescu, an expert in ethics at the University of Oxford, was quoted by BBC as saying.
“Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer,” Savulescu said.
“There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals – for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one does contract it,” the Oxford professor added.”
Defending his work at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on Wednesday (Nov 28), Jiankui said he was proud of his achievement, calling it a “wonderful progress in HIV therapy.”
Although he said he had submitted his study findings for review by a scientific journal, he didn’t reveal the name of the concerned journal.
The beleaguered researcher was scheduled to address the conference again on Thursday, but he left Hong Kong, saying through a spokesman-delivered statement: “I will remain in China, my home country, and cooperate fully with all inquiries about my work. My raw data will be made available for third party review.”
“How can a scientific experiment with so many uncertainties be kept as a secret for such a long time?” questioned He Kaiwen, a researcher at Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Biology
“This shows that there’s huge problem with the transparency of scientific research,” she said.
“This is a completely new situation. This question is one we have never faced before,” Keiwen added.
Center for Genetics and Society Wednesday issued a civil society statement to the organizers of the Hong Kong summit.
The statement which so far has 142 signatories, including 129 individuals and 13 organizations, says:
“The undersigned individuals and organizations wish to express our dismay and outrage at He Jiankui’s claims of creating genetically engineered babies.
“Though these claims are unverified, his actions violate a key provision of the concluding statement issued at the First International Summit on Human Gene Editing in 2015, that such dangerous experiments should not proceed until there was broad societal consensus in their favor.”
The statement goes on to condemn what it calls the “rogue actions” of Jiankui for taking such a “consequential decision” all by himself, calling on governments and the United Nations to legislate enforceable regulations to ban “reproductive experiments with human genetic engineering.”
It says that such moratoria are necessary to discourage an international one-upmanship in genetic-engineering, that would potentially lead to “a new form of eugenics.”
“If the summit and other scientific bodies do not act, it will fall to civil society and policy makers to do so, in order to ensure the avoidance of disastrous consequences for global society,” the statement warns.
The organizing committee – including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and U.S.
National Academy of Medicine, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, and the Chinese Academy of Science – released a statement of its own at the conclusion of the summit.
It said that changes to the DNA of embryos or gametes had its potential benefits, but warned that “heritable genome editing of either embryos or gametes poses risks that remain difficult to evaluate.”
“Germline editing could produce unintended harmful effects for not just an individual but also for that individual’s descendants,” said the committee’s statement.
“Changes to a particular trait may have unanticipated effects on other traits that could vary from person to person and in response to environmental influences,” it added.