After a Chinese scientist claimed to have edited genes of babies, authorities have halted all human gene-editing research in the country. Meanwhile, the scientist has apparently been missing for the past several days.
The breakthrough and the backlash
In November last month, He Jiankui, a professor from the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUST) in Shenzhen, declared in a genome summit in Hong Kong that he had edited the genes of two twin girls so that they never contract HIV.
The girls, Lulu and Nana, had a normal birth following the gene editing. Prof. He planned to monitor them over a period of 18 years. Eight couples, each of them comprising HIV positive fathers, had voluntarily signed up for the experiment, according to the professor. One couple dropped out later.
After Prof. He’s announcement, the scientific community in China was in a state of uproar. Gene editing is banned in most nations, including China. “The nature of this incident is extremely nasty, and relevant bodies have been ordered to temporarily halt the scientific research activities of relevant personnel,” state news media Xinhua stated (NBC News).
The Chinese government has issued a notice to stop all research related to editing human genes temporarily ever since Prof. He’s announcement. Xu Nanping, Vice-Minister of Science and Technology in China, ordered an immediate shutdown of the professor’s lab and called for his punishment. The Health Commission of Guangdong Province and Shenzhen City have initiated an investigation into the case.
There are concerns among scientists and ethical experts that gene editing might end up getting misused to edit genes of even perfectly healthy babies to make them “better” than the rest of the human race. Experts theorized that this would end up creating serious social issues. Hence, the ban on gene editing in most countries.
“If true, this experiment is 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… This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit,” Prof Julian Savulescu, an ethics expert at the University of Oxford, said to the BBC.
Interestingly, Prof. He has been missing since he made his announcement in Hong Kong. SUST president Chen Shiyi is said to have flown to Hong Kong, escorted him back to Shenzhen, and put the professor under house arrest. This has been denied by the university. However, his office at SUST remains closed. When media contacted a company co-founded by Prof. He, they claimed to be unaware of the whereabouts of the professor.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has come forward condemning gene editing technologies, citing the possibility of dangerous results. “This is uncharted water and it has to be taken seriously… We are talking about human beings; editing should not harm the welfare of the future person. We have to be very careful; the working group will do that with all openness and transparency,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said to SBS News.
WHO is planning to set up a panel of experts to study gene editing practices, safety issues, and moral concerns. After reviewing the panel report, the organization aims to set clear standards and guidelines for the gene editing industry.