He Jiankui

A Chinese scientist has faced widespread condemnation for editing the genome of two babies at his lab in the Southern University of Science and Technology in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, together with an American colleague.

The researcher, He Jiankui, made the news public at a conference in Hong Kong, in an article by a reporter for Associated Press and a series of YouTube videos. His experiments have not been peer reviewed or published so it is impossible for other scientists to verify his claims.

The ostensible purpose of the experiment was to give “lifetime protection” against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Using a gene-editing technology called CRISPR, Dr He modified the DNA of embryos belonging to eight couples. All the fathers had HIV; none of the mothers did. Five implanted the embryos but only one woman gave birth — to twin girls.

If what Dr He says is true – and it’s a big if — this is a milestone in genetic technology. For the first time a scientist has created designer babies. His purpose was not to prevent the children from having a disease by editing a gene, but to improve their genetic profile by modifying it. In this case, he disabled a gene called CCR5 that creates a doorway for the HIV virus to enter a cell and cause AIDS.

Around the world the reaction to He’s announcement was almost unanimous. His university declared that it had known nothing about his work and described it as a “serious violation of academic ethics and standards”. His American colleague, Michael Deem, a bioengineering professor, is being investigated by Rice University.

An Australian researcher, Greg Neely, summed up the reaction of scientists: “Before we start editing human embryos to try and control disease, we first need to better understand the safety issues involved, and importantly we need to identify the most appropriate disease to target, in this case prophylactic editing to control future HIV infection was not justified. In the end the motivation here seems to be one of personal glory for the scientists involved, and there may be a horrific cost to pay for this hubris.”

Even “progressive” bioethicists slammed He’s leap into the future. Julian Savulescu, an Oxford professor who supports genome modification, cried that it was “monstrous”. “This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit,” he wrote. “It contravenes decades on ethical consensus and guidelines on the protection of human participants in research. In many other places in the world, this would be illegal and punishable by imprisonment.” Gene editing was worth considering in cases where it was life-saving, he declared. But He’s experiment was “life-risking”.

But is this tsunami of indignation sincere?

Yes, but only because He had not played the game by the rules. His experiment had not been passed by an institutional review board; it was announced in the media before it appeared in a scientific journal; and the ensuing scandal put a cloud over similar research.

Almost no one cited in the media condemned him for modifying the human germline. In other words, the practice was wrong, but not the theory.

In fact, modifying the human genome is already happening legally in the United Kingdom, where Parliament approved three-parent babies not long ago.

As Dr David King, of the British lobby group Human Genetics Alert, commented: “Although some scientists have condemned He Jiankui's criminal eugenic experiments, the truth is that they have themselves provided cover for him. Although there is no medical need whatever for genetic engineering of human beings, scientists' organisations always oppose a global ban.”

Only a few months ago the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an influential British think tank, cautiously endorsed human genome editing. As long as it was safe and regulated, “the potential use of heritable genome editing interventions to influence the characteristics of future generations could be ethically acceptable in some circumstances.”

Dr He is being described as a “rogue scientist” who ignored the rules. But that is the way that whole field of reproductive technology has advanced. Bob Edwards, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for developing IVF, never sought ethics approvals or worried about the safety of the children. He was an unashamed eugenicist.

As Edwards said in 1999: “Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children.” Edwards did not even seem to worry about the higher rate of birth defects among IVF children. They were just collateral damage of the “clinical imperative”.

Yet now Bob Edwards is regarded as a hero — because his risky experiment worked.

If you take the trouble to listen to Dr He’s explanation of his ethical principles in his heavily accented English in a YouTube video produced by his laboratory, you might even agree with him. 

Family is society’s bedrock. Our children are the centre of family life. If we can protect a little girl or boy from certain diseases, if we can help more loving couples start families, gene surgery is a wholesome development for medicine.

The acid test for the scientific community comes today when Dr He addresses an international summit on gene editing in Hong Kong organised by the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Medicine. The summit ought to endorse a global ban on modifying the human genome. Will it? Not likely. *

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.  

* UPDATE — The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing issued a statement on Thursday (November 29) which censured Dr He for his “unexpected and deeply disturbing claim”. However, as expected, it gave its wholehearted endorsement to germline editing in principle, provided that the obvious risks are addressed.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.