A Chinese scientist, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claims to be the first to use a powerful new gene-editing technique to create genetically modified human babies. Jiankui says he used human embryos that were modified with the gene-editing technique CRISPR to create twin girls.
“Two beautiful little Chinese girls name Lulu and Nana came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago,” He says in a video posted online. “The babies are home now with their mom Grace and their dad Mark.”
Jiankui’s team performed “gene surgery” on the embryos created from their parents’ sperm and eggs, in order to protect the children from the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, which causes AIDS. Lulu and Nana’s father is HIV-positive.
“When Lulu and Nana were just a single cell, this surgery removed a doorway through which HIV enter to infect people,” He says in one of several videos posted online to justify and explain the work.
However, since the research has yet to be published in a scientific journal or carefully vetted by other scientists, many researchers and bioethicists remain cautious regarding this claim. On the other hand, if it is true, many believe the move would become historic, comparing it to the birth of Louise Brown, the first baby created through in-vitro fertilization, IVF.
“This event might be analogous to Louise Brown in 1978,” wrote George Church, a prominent Harvard geneticist, in an email. “Both anecdotal — yet healthy baby girls can have an impact,” Church wrote.
Meanwhile, the NPR reports Jiankui faces an investigation by a local medical ethics board to investigate whether his experiment broke Chinese laws or regulations. The university, in which Jiankui worked at, issued a statement that officials were “deeply shocked” by the experiment, stressing it was conducted elsewhere. In addition, the statement says Jiankui has been on unpaid leave from the university.
The claims made by Jiankui sparked immediate criticism from attendees at the Second International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Hong Kong, which Church and He were also present for. The summit was initially organized to attempt to reach a global consensus on whether and how it would be ethical to create genetically modified human beings with CRISPR.
“This work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing,” Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an interview. Doudna helped discover CRISPR and organize the summit.
“All of us that are here at this conference are struggling to figure out what was done and also whether the process was done properly. We just don’t know yet,” Doudna says.
But the claim “really reinforces the urgent need to confine the use of gene-editing in human embryos to settings where there’s a clear unmet medical need and where there’s no alternative viable approach,” says Doudna. She doesn’t believe this is the case for this particular situation.
“If this was done to avoid HIV infection, there are alternative ways to prevent infection that are already effective,” Doudna says, such as “washing” the sperm of infected sperm donors to eliminate HIV. “Why would you use this instead of an already established approach?”
According to Jiankui and his colleagues, they used CRISPR to make changes in one-day old embryos in a gene called CCR5. The CCR5 gene enables HIV to enter and infect immune system cells. In addition, they claim to have only used to CRISPR to edit 16 embryos and implanted 11 edited embryos into the wombs of women to attempt to create a viable pregnancy before the twin pregnancy was achieved.
“No gene was changed except the one to prevent HIV infection,” He says. The twins appear to be healthy and underwent detailed genetic analysis. “This verified the gene surgery worked safely,” He says.
Chinese Scientist Jiankui acknowledges that his work could spark criticism but defends the notion. “I understand my work will be controversial,” he says. “But I believe families need this technology. And I am willing to take the criticism for them.”