He Jiankui is the Chinese scientist who recently sparked an international outcry after helping create world’s first genetically edited babies with a possibility of a third one as well. He announced that a separate woman is at an early stage of pregnancy with the modified embryo.
He, is an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. He had publicly defended his work in packed hall of 700 people during the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, Wednesday. His work rattled the scientific community on Monday when he announced through an online video of the birth of two healthy twin girls this month from his altered embryos which made them resistant to HIV.
During the presentation on Wednesday, He, said, “For this specific case, I feel proud. I feel proudest, because they had lost hope for life.” as the father of the twins is believed to carry HIV and had sent a message saying that with this protection, “He (the father) will work hard, earn money and take care of this two daughters and his wife.”
When asked about other pregnancies, He replied, “There is another one, another potential pregnancy.” and did not disclose any further details except that it is still an early stage.
His research has raised some serious questions about ethics involving transparency of gene editing and demands for global consensus as the pace of genetic editing technology is exceeding the ability for making new laws and regulations.
During the question answer session after his presentation, He said he held two rounds of informed consent with the parents which lasted for a total of three hours.
After which, Robin Lovell-Badge, Head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at Francis Crick Institute, said, “The simple fact that he was directly involved in trying to get consent from the patients is a huge problem… You should never do that. You should have an independent third party who can properly explain the risks and the benefits.”
Another concern regarding the modified embryos was the editing and removal of CCR5 gene, which according to the scientists present at the conference, said is crucial for human immune system as it removes the risk of being vulnerable to diseases such as West Nile virus and Influenza.
As Feng Zhang, one of the inventors of the gene-editing technique CRISPR, said, “When you change one thing, something else gets changed too.”
However, since there are no global regulations that outlaw He’s actions, his use of CRISPR-cas9 is a clear break with convention.
The pioneer of improving versions of CRISPR and professor at Harvard University of chemistry and chemical biology, David R Liu, said, “There’s a faily tight consensus from what is and is not acceptable in genome editing as of now, and He’s reported work represents a departure from that.”
After He’s presentation was over, David Baltimore, the chair of conference, commented that He’s research is not medically necessary for HIV treatments as there are other ways of treating it. And criticized his lack of transparency referring to an agreement made in 2015 conference that said it would be irresponsible to use such genetic-editing until safety issues had been dealt with.
Consequences of such work?
As gene-editing technology is at initial stages, it is difficult to judge what the consequences of using human embryos could lead to.
Jennifer Doudna, one of the co-inventors of CRISPR, said she felt “physically sick” during the presentation and “To see this work being presented and performed the way it was, it was really inappropriate. And it effects two girls… I hope this is a wake up call for everybody to recognize that while this technology is incredibly exciting, this is and important moment where we need to grapple with responsibility of managing this technology going forward.”
A concern raised for the girls was the social effect on them to which He responded that he has no idea how answer the question.
China: Leading Player in CRISPR
China is one of the first country in the world to invest heavily in gene-editing and with the use of CRISPR-cas9 on humans in 2016.
In 2017, China spend $254 billion on research and development which has spurred a genetic arms race, “Sputnik 2.0” as labeled by Dr. Carl June, Immunotherapy Specialist, University of Pennsylvania.
However, despite being a heavy investor in gene-editing, more than 120 Chinese scientists have condemned He Jiankui’s work as it has dealt a massive blow to their biomedical research reputation and wrote, “It’s extremely unfair to Chinese scientists who are diligent, innovative and defending the bottom line of scientific ethics… directly experimenting on human is nothing but crazy… as soon as a living human is produced, no one could predict what kind of impact it will bring, as the modified inheritable substance will inevitably blend into human genome pool.”
Furthermore, the Chinese government has ordered and investigation into He’s claims and work.
Moreover, Micheal Deem, a bioengineering professor at Rice University is also being investigated after he was reported by the media to be involved in He’s work.
Deem has published three research papers with He and was his adviser at Rice for more than three years.
To this development, the Director of Rice University, Doug Miller, said, “This research raises troubling scientific, legal and ethical questions and said the University had “no knowledge of this work.”