A little-known Chinese biomedical researcher announced earlier this week that he had successfully edited the genes in twin girls, Lulu and Nana, to make them resistant to HIV. But China has already halted his research.
The American-educated researcher, He Jiankui, jolted the scientific and medical communities with his findings. But before this week, he was virtually unknown. Now, he's at the center of an international ethical debate and facing criticism for failing to provide any evidence of his alleged breakthrough.
“I was shocked because this is so beyond the pale of what scientists are doing or considering acceptable to do,” said Professor Robert Klitzman, the head of the bioethics department at Columbia University. “This is completely immoral."
“He's opened up Pandora's Box in many ways,” Klitzman added.
He Jiankui announced his findings two days before the Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong, where he was slated to give a talk. By the time his speech rolled around on Wednesday, he drew a crowd of journalists and bioethicists who’ve been debating the risks of gene-edited humans for years. They're concerned about his work on human embryos, especially without the knowledge of his employers or government.
“It was so surreal in the sense that we're coming here exactly to debate these kinds of questions when no one was thinking that there actually are two babies in the world who have had their embryos genetically edited,” said Professor Ayo Wahlberg of Copenhagen University, who attended the conference. “Science should always be built around values of transparency."
He's previous work touched on CRISPR, a technology that uses molecules to find and remove specific sequences of DNA. China’s government has pressured scientists like him to make advancements in that research to jump ahead in the genetic equivalent of the space race.
While technological advancements have enabled research into genetic modifications, removing or editing human genomic sequences has unknown consequences.
“There has been consensus among leading countries, including China, that you should not be taking edited embryos and implanting them in women to have children at this point because we just do not know the risks and the risks could be severe,” Klitzman said. “We just do not know the risks and the risks could be severe.”
On Thursday, the Chinese government announced that it ordered He to stop the genetic research that contributed to the allegedly successful births of Lulu and Nana. "While we ... applaud the rapid advance of somatic gene editing into clinical trials, we continue to believe that proceeding with any clinical use of germline editing remains irresponsible at this time," the organizing committee for the Human Genome Editing Summit wrote in a statement.
This segment originally November 28, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.