First gene-edited babies reignite debate over ‘designer babies’

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Chinese scientist Dr. He Jiankui claims to have produced the first genetically edited babies, resulting in public uproar regarding the safety and ethics of gene editing as a whole, with many of the qualms people have about the process being brought to the forefront of discussions.

He — trained at Stanford University and an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China — presented the results of his experimentation at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, held from Nov. 27 to Nov. 29.

With the presentation at the summit, an accompanied Associated Press interview and a series of YouTube videos explaining the process he used, He announced that he edited the genes of twins using the CRISPR-Cas9 system in order to make them less susceptible to HIV.

This type of research is illegal in the United States, and China has stepped in and halted He’s research in order to investigate its legality.

He seems to, at the very least, have subverted scientific standards and norms by going forth with his research without waiting for his proposal to be peer-reviewed, resulting in the alteration of new life without the jurisdiction of anyone but himself. Due to the lack of peer-reviewed evidence, however, this life-changing event cannot be confirmed, and, therefore, there is a possibility that it’s a hoax.

The gene He edited is responsible for the creation of the protein that HIV uses to enter the body. In essence, He’s edits eliminate the gene’s ability to produce the protein that allows for HIV susceptibility. Though this action seems positive, it has many unintended consequences that it seems He did not know about.

First, while this alteration would make the twins resistant to HIV, it increases susceptibility to the West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis due to a lack of the protein. There are much simpler methods to tackle HIV later in life that do not result in such negative effects.

Even more drastic than this, there was also a lack of care in the application of the CRISPR-Cas9 system in this specific case. If the system is used carelessly, the user risks altering genes other than the specific ones targeted.

There is also the danger of what specialists call mosaicism, in which only some cells contain the edited genes.

While He claims to have made sure that mosaicism does not occur in the children that he produced and that the babies were “born normally and healthily,” without peer discretion, this cannot be verified.

In fact, the data that He presented at the conference seems to have concerned other scientists who were present. Though He shut down the gene on one twin, Nana, he did not apply the same principles for the other twin, Lulu. Lulu still has one copy of the unaltered gene, so she is provided with less protection from HIV than Nana.

Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania who reviewed the data, said that “there’s clear evidence of mosaicism” in both the edited embryos.

“I was so furious,” Musunuru commented. “This would have been disturbing anyway — gene-edited babies. It made it a hundred times worse knowing that he had totally mosaic embryos. It’s as if you took the embryos and dipped them in acid and said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to go ahead with the implantation anyway.’ It’s not that much different.”

As a whole, He has committed a huge ethical misstep. CRISPR’s co-inventor Jennifer Doudna labeled He’s actions as “truly unacceptable,” while Nobel Prize laureate David Baltimore said that “there has been a failure of self-regulation in the scientific community,” referring to what He presented at the summit. Not only are He’s actions bad for the future of regulated gene editing, but they also pose a threat by emboldening rogue scientists who hear of He’s story and are inspired to do their own clandestine research.

At present, He has made no public appearance since the conference. “He is facing investigation from the Southern University of Science and Technology, as well as China’s Ministry of Science and Technology,” reported ScienceAlert.

“His colleague, bioengineering professor Michael Deem of Rice University in the U.S., is also under investigation for his potential role in the proceedings.”

ScienceAli HussainComment