In November last year, genetics was reluctantly thrown into a new era.
Dr He Jiankui announced via YouTube that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies under a veil of secrecy, much to the disbelief and disapproval of the world. The overwhelming majority of scientists were quick to condemn the ethically dubious experiment and Dr He was promptly shunned by his colleagues and authorities in China.
While much of the immediate backlash has since died down, the embers are still burning hot. Speaking at an event in London this week, a leading geneticist has discussed the controversy and explained the new dangers faced by the Chinese scientist in question, reports The Independent.
Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute has spoken candidly about He, denouncing his “huge ego” and recklessness, as well as his inexperience and poor quality of work. Most shockingly of all, the Chinese-born scientist is reportedly living under armed guard and might even face the death penalty for corruption and bribery charges – capital offenses in China, The Telegraph reports.
“Quite a few people have lost their heads for corruption,” said Lovell-Badge, according to The Telegraph.
Professor Lovell-Badge spoke with He at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing (pictured below) in November where the controversial work was publically announced for the first time. The UK-based professor was told how many of He's peers advised him not to proceed with the research. It's still not totally clear why He went against the calls of his colleagues and carried out the work "in secret", however, Lovell-Badge noted that "he was very rich" and "treated very well by the Chinese system”, according to CNN.
“You have a physicist who doesn’t know biology, who wants to do the next big thing – huge ego, lots of money – and he’s working in an environment where pretty much anything goes,” said Lovell-Badge.
“It seems to be easier to get things done there, there are less hoops to jump through,” he said. “The further you get from Beijing the more you can get away with.”
One of the main controversies with the research was the lack of ethical precautions in place for the people involved. In theory, the "CRISPR twins" were born with an altered CCR5 gene that will help protect them from HIV infections. However, the wider side effects of tweaking this gene in humans are totally unknown. "It is certainly possible that he has put the children’s lives at risk,” Lovell-Badge told reporters in London. “No one knows what these mutations will do.”
When the story of the experiment first broke, many doubted the veracity of He's claims. However, if this controversy proves anything, it's that the experiment – for better or for worse – was indeed carried out. "If he was going to make this up, he would have made it up much better than this," Lovell-Badge added. "I'm pretty sure he's done it."