Chinese Professor He Jiankui claims he has genetically altered several baby embryos.
By Trista Youssef
In a video released on Sunday, Professor He Jiankui claimed responsibility for the birth of genetically modified twins resistant to HIV. The video sparked an investigation from Chinese health authorities.
Gene editing is illegal in most countries because its effects are largely unpredictable. DNA alterations can potentially harm future generations, causing mutations and disease. If He’s claims are true, his human experiment poses a scientific and ethical controversy.
Although gene editing has recently been used to treat adults with fatal diseases, gene editing on embryos has more potential to be dangerous. DNA alterations in adults are confined to that one person, while genetic modification of embryos can be inherited by future generations, having unpredictable effects for the entire gene pool.
Professor Julian Savulescu, an ethicist at the University of Oxford, called He’s experiment “monstrous.”
“Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer,” said Savulescu.
In a joint statement, more than 120 Chinese scientists criticised the experient as “madness,” calling on authorities to ban the activity and enforce ethical guidelines. Chinese lawyers and HIV researchers have also publicly denounced He’s research.
Professor He defended his work, stating that the participants in his experiment “are as much authorities on what is correct and what is wrong because it’s their life on the line.”
The goal of He’s gene alteration was to make HIV-resistant DNA for babies with parents suffering from the disease.
“I believe this is going to help the families and their children,” He said. If the DNA editing has harmful effects in the future, He said, “I would feel the same pain as they do and it’s going to be my own responsibility.”