Science

Scientist behind world's first genetically modified babies is "proud" of his work

Scientist behind world's first...
He Jiankui presenting his research on Wednesday in Hong Kong
He Jiankui presenting his research on Wednesday in Hong Kong
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He Jiankui presenting his research on Wednesday in Hong Kong
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He Jiankui presenting his research on Wednesday in Hong Kong

On Wednesday, Chinese scientist He Jiankui took to the stage at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing amidst a maelstrom of controversy surrounding his recent revelation of creating the world's first genetically edited babies. As He announced pride in his work, the Chinese government called it "shocking and unacceptable."

After news broke earlier in the week revealing the birth of the first ever gene-edited human babies, all eyes turned to the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. He Jiankui, the mysterious figure behind this research was set to present his work to the public after toiling in secrecy for a number of years.

He was introduced by famous UK scientist Robin Lovell-Badge, and Lovell-Badge reiterated during his introduction that the conference organizers were unaware the work to be presented included discussion on implanted embryos. "In fact," Lovell-Badge added, "he had sent me the slides he was going to show in this session and it did not include any of the work that he is now going to talk about. There was some clinical data, but nothing involving implanted human embryos."

He's subsequent presentation was heavy on scientific detail and light on moral or ethical defenses, however, the scientist was pressed on these issues during a comprehensive Q&A session. Asked why the research was conducted in such as quiet, under-the-radar way, He continually suggested scientists have a responsibility to pursue work that will help eliminate disease.

"Do you see your friends, your relatives who may have – a genetic disease – the way I see it, those people need help," said He. "There are millions of families with inherited diseases or exposure to infectious disease. If we have the technology and can make it available, then this will help people. When we talk about the future, first it's transparent to open and share what knowledge I accumulate, to society and to the world. It is up to society to decide what to do next."

He was also questioned about whether there were any other gene-edited pregnancies associated with his work. Here the controversial scientist quietly dropped a starkly straightforward confirmation replying, "There is another one, another potential pregnancy." No other information on this potential third genetically edited baby was forthcoming at this stage.

It is unclear exactly who was aware of He's work before this week, with both local ethics bodies and He's former university claiming none of his research occurred with their approval. The Chinese government also called for an immediate halt to all of He's work. Xu Nanping, the country's Vice Minister for Science and Technology ordered an investigation into the research suggesting it was potentially illegal.

"The genetically edited infant incident reported by media blatantly violated China's relevant laws and regulations," Xu said. "It has also violated the ethical bottom line that the academic community adheres to. It is shocking and unacceptable."

The events of the last week will undoubtedly reverberate for years to come, with scientists and governments being forced to grapple with issues that until now have remained abstract and philosophical. How we respond to the case of He Jiankui will define a great deal of research in the future.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has criticized the scientific community for its "slow" and "tepid" response to He's "ill-considered and unethical" work. Gottlieb suggests governments must immediately act to crack down on these rogue scientists as it has become clear the community is unable to self-police itself.

Gottlieb is not alone in his calls of hitting the stop button on this kind of research, however, pioneering geneticist George Church has been one of the few scientists to come out in He's defense. Church describes many responses to He's work as extreme, and akin to a "bullying situation."

"The most serious thing I've heard is that he didn't do the paperwork right," says Church in an interview with Science Insider. "He wouldn't be the first person who got the paperwork wrong. It's just that the stakes are higher."

Outside of fundamental moral concerns over genetic editing, all of the furore does boil down to questions of transparency. And it is of hiding much of his work prior to now that He seems most guilty. Calls for a more official moratorium on germline editing are rising, but as Church makes clear, "a moratorium is not a permanent ban forever." Instead, the best way forward may be to realize this technology exists, and is being used, so clear guidance and checklists for best practice must be established to make sure future work is done out in the open, for all to see and scrutinize.

10 comments
Robert Schreib
HELLO DOCTOR FRANKENSTEIN!!!
Deres
The main issue is also that the genetic modification he made has in fact no real sure utility. The risk of contracting HIV is not worth the risk of having your genome altered by a possibly non safe method. This technology may be used for real disabilities surely leading ultimately to death until it is proved safe but not in this case !
KateCooper
Dr. He has courageously brought this technology forward. If scientists didn't do that then we would still be thinking the earth is flat and the center of the solar system. We can debate whether GMO like putting fish genes in tomatoes is OK or not but not this! If we can prevent maladies like ALS, Parkinsons, Cancers etc.. then let's do it. The science establishment and the politicians have held back epigenetics/ Genomics long enough! If they want it done right, then get of your butts and fund it and do it "right"!
Aross
Ditto. Why don't we let NATURAL selection do its job. The arrogance of the scientific community to think that they know better is unbelievable.
Venetian
The fake outrage about gene modification of unborn fetuses is a joke. This is INEVITABLE. It's a natural step in our evolution as a species. Reminds me of the time when the first test tube baby was conceived. That is was a "sin" against the invisible man in the sky! For anyone who is naive enough to think that people with money will not want to create custom designed children I have a bridge to sell you. If you had an opportunity to create a healthy, tall, symmetrical, intelligent, disease proofed child and you would choose not to, you are unfit to be a parent.
MichaelShortland
Good on him, some one has to make the first step.
bwana4swahili
He has every right to be proud of his research. Regardless of who advances human gene editing, it is going to happen AND governments and the military will probably be the main funders of the research. Complaining about the ethics and calling this researcher irresponsible is simply letting another country gain the advantage...
Rustin Lee Haase
Botany Bay!!! :-( Enough said if you take my meaning. - This will end in tears.
JagtygerII
rhey already have knowledge of the genes that control the myostatin inhibitors that control muscle mass, genes that causes some people's bones to be nearly unbreakable, genes that allow people to heal 4 time faster than normal, genes that make people virtually immune to diseases, perfect 20/10 vision, better than normal hearing, enhanced lung capacity, more efficient oxygen carrying blood cells and one south seas island group has enlarges spleens that allows them to dive deeper and longer than normal. Should someone combine all of those features in a single human being, you would effectively have a super soldier
owlbeyou
Humans have long been preoccupied with the folly of the afterlife. Now a focus on pre-birth is here, except there's no religion involved. You can always count on somebody doing something unethical to push boundaries, but this development will only be accessible for people with deep pockets, at least for a while yet. This just another example of 'the grass is greener on the other side'. We collectively are screwing up the planet and the natural cycle, so we look elsewhere (Mars) for an escape. We have made huge advances in health and medicine, but now we're tweaking fetuses and messing with another natural cycle. Do we really want a generation of omni-humans or have we been absorbing too many super hero comics? I would think that the first lab-babies are going to grow up with potentially horrific side effects and psychological stresses, because after all they're not animals or plants that we can often ignore. We've been successfully modifying plants for a long time, but this has led to excessive use of chemicals in the growth process. We have now begun to treat animals like plants by playing with their genomes or growing them in restricted and confined spaces, and stuffing them with antibiotics and growth hormones to compensate a most unnatural method of animal husbandry. So hey, let's treat people like plants too! Humans used to worship God(s), but now we're gradually beginning to act like God. We've come full circle.