At a scientific conference on 26 November, a researcher from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China made the shocking announcement that he has created the world’s first gene-edited babies. Organizers of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong wrapped up the conference on 28 November by formally concluding that claims made by Chinese researcher Dr He Jiankui are a “deeply disturbing” and “irresponsible” violation of international scientific norms.
The embryos of two babies ― twin girls born this month ― were seemingly “vaccinated” to make them immune to the AIDS virus using the CRISPR-Cas9 the gene-editing technique. The news was met with shock but still remains unverified and the findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. According to the researcher, a woman was impregnated using in vitro fertilization (IVF) with embryos in which a gene called CCR5 ― encoding for a protein that allows HIV to enter cells ― had been edited to disable the genetic pathway used by HIV to infect cells. If true, the babies represent a hugely controversial step towards human genome editing. He says embryos have been altered for seven couples during fertility treatments, however, only one pregnancy has resulted so far.
The three-day summit on human gene-editing was organized by the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine. One of the main aims of the annual summit is to reach an international consensus on this type of germline editing ― modifying eggs, sperm, or embryos. The conference organizers were clear on their view, “We continue to believe that proceeding with any clinical use of germline editing remains irresponsible at this time.” In their closing statement, they said, “Germline genome editing could become acceptable in the future,” but added that it would require oversight, medical need, a lack of medical alternatives, a follow-up strategy, and “attention to societal effects.”
Many believe a huge amount of legislation and public discussion should take place before genome editing is used in embryos. Furthermore, according to Joyce Harper, an expert on reproductive health from University College London. years of research are still needed to ensure that altering the genome of an embryo will not cause harm. She calls the research’s work “premature, dangerous and irresponsible.” Gene editing has recently been attempted in adults to treat deadly diseases. The diffence is that those changes are confined to a particular person, whereas modifications achieved by editing sperm, eggs, or embryos can be inherited.
Other internationally renowned scientists who study the HIV virus have questioned He’s use of the CCR5 pathway in embryos since some HIV strains do not even use this protein to enter cells. Moreover, Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, UK, told Nature, “This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit.”
In a statement released by Southern University of Science and Technology on 26 November, the university claims to have been unaware of the research being conducted by Dr He and plans to set up an independent committee to investigate. More than 100 scientists in China have condemned the research and consider it to be “a huge blow to the international reputation and the development of Chinese science, especially in the field of biomedical research.” The strongly-worded statement collectively published online has stated, “Directly jumping into human experiments can only be described as crazy.”