A Chinese scientist says his experimentation has produced the world’s first genetically edited babies, prompting criticism and condemnation from religious and secular bioethicists around the world.
Speaking at the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong on Nov. 28, Chinese scientist He Jiankui said he was “proud” of his work, which used a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to alter the genes of twin girls conceived via in vitro fertilization (IVF) so they cannot contract HIV.
The twins’ father has HIV and the couple, who Dr. He said volunteered for the experiment, wished to protect their children from the virus.
For the allegedly successful birth of the twins, 22 embryos were created via IVF using the couple’s eggs and sperm. Of those 16 were edited and 11 were used in six implant attempts before pregnancy was achieved, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
Dr. He said he has edited the genes of embryos for seven couples, but only one pregnancy has been reported.
While AP did not specify what happened with the unused embryos, bioethicist and physician Joy Riley, executive director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics and Culture, said they presumably were destroyed or frozen, both morally problematic outcomes.
Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell, Graves professor of moral philosophy at Union University, said, “the unnecessary and wanton destruction of human embryos is a bridge too far, even if the effort is to heal others. We would not tolerate for a moment the killing of a dozen individuals to harvest their organs for transplantation. Why would we allow the destruction of living members of the human race in an attempt to treat others?”
Such gene-editing work is banned in most countries, including China. Dr. He’s university, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said it was unaware of the research project and would investigate.
Dr. He said he funded the research himself. The work has not been verified or published in any academic journals.
Scientists who reviewed materials Dr. He provided to the AP said they could not confirm the gene editing worked or rule out that harm was done to the twins.
Mitchell said the news from China raises many concerns.
“Here is another instance where the cautionary principle should give us pause,” Mitchell said. “We are not tinkering with plants and animals … but with human beings. Not only should we proceed with extraordinary caution, but we should not move ahead without the assurance that we could reverse any augmentation we make.”
Mitchell added that while it might be difficult to distinguish between genetic therapy and genetic enhancement, “it is still obligatory if we’re to move forward ethically.” (BP)