Chinese researcher He Jiankui shocked the world when he revealed that he has altered the DNA of twin girls before their birth and made them immune to the HIV and AIDS. If these claims are true, then these twins are the first in the world to be genetically edited babies. Professor He revealed his controversial work earlier this week. In a YouTube video, he said that he had used gene-editing tools to eliminate a gene called CCR5 to make a pair of two girls, named Lulu and Nana. They are resistant to HIV if they ever come in contact with it.
During a genome summit in Hong Kong, the scientist defended his work and talked about the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS in China. Many of his colleagues believe that He Jiankui has exceeded too far in his work and warned that meddling with the genome of an embryo could cause long-term problems for the individual and the future generation both. Prof Julian Savulescu, an ethics expert at the University of Oxford, said, “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.”
During a presentation at the Hong Kong summit, Professor He explained that he had used a technique called CRISPR-Cas9 to remove the CCR5 gene in various human embryos which are created through ‘in vitro fertilization’ (IVF) for families with HIV positive fathers. The DNA changes were done to mirror a natural mutation which is identified in a tiny percentage of people and makes them immune to the HIV. The presentation was described as vague by many scientists who were present at the genome summit. On the other hand, many believed all the claims which he made. However, what he did and how he did it is still a mystery.
The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, where Professor He Jiankui works, denied any knowledge of his controversial work. The scientist also confirmed that he carried out the project independently and also funded it himself. The university also told that He had been on unpaid leave February this year. They also announced that an investigation into his work has already begun. The twins were born with the genetically edited DNA made by He. Both the girls are in good health. He also added that there are plans to monitor the girls over the next 18 years to see if CRISPR genetic editing affects them and if it does, how it will do that. Kathy Niakan, a scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said, “It is impossible to overstate how irresponsible, unethical and dangerous this is at the moment. There was a worrying lack of oversight or scrutiny of his clinical plans before he started human experiments and a complete lack of transparency throughout the process.”
Dr. Yalda Jamshidi, an expert in human genetics at St. George’s University of London shared his opinion and said, “There was a worrying lack of oversight or scrutiny of his clinical plans before he started human experiments and a complete lack of transparency throughout the process.” He Jiankui defended his work despite all the criticism and also said that he is proud of the results. He said, “I truly believe that, not only for this case but for millions of children, they need this protection since an HIV vaccine is not available. In this case, I feel proud.”