On Sunday, news broke that a Chinese scientist had apparently created the world’s first gene-edited babies to protect them from contracting HIV. Although he still hasn't published any real evidence, scientists across the world were quick to condemn the ethically dubious claims, describing the experiment as “deeply concerning”, “shocking”, and “monstrous”. Some even doubted it was real and suggested it was a publicity stunt for his numerous genetics companies.
As if things couldn’t get weirder, the university then came out to say the scientist had gone rogue and carried out the study in secret without their knowledge.
He Jiankui – the China-born, US-trained mastermind of the project – has now spoken about his work for the first time since the story erupted. Speaking at a genome editing summit at the University of Hong Kong on Wednesday, He was given the opportunity to defend his actions and give details about the science behind the project.
According to He, a pair of twins that underwent gene editing were recently born. The pregnancy was much like “regular IVF with one difference”. When the eggs and sperm were combined, the scientists also added a CRISPR protein that had been "told" to alter the CCR5 gene. Disabling this single gene helps to “shut the doorway” through which HIV can enter and infect cells, although it's worth noting that the twins were born healthy and not infected with HIV.
“For this specific case, I feel proud. I feel proudest, because they had lost hope for life," He said, when challenged by several peers at the conference (live stream below).
"I must apologize that this result was leaked unexpectedly,” he added.
Upon questioning, He even dropped this bombshell: "There is another one, another potential pregnancy," suggesting that there could be a second pregnancy with gene-edited babies. However, he didn’t go into further detail about this remark.
On the whole, He's claims were met by an icy audience and a barrage of questioning, as well as numerous accusations of being “irresponsible”, which he brushed off. Many scientists at the summit were also wary of the safety concerns when it comes to using CRISPR gene editing, which has been shown to trigger unwanted changes elsewhere within the DNA.
Speaking after He's presentation at the conference, David Baltimore from the California Institute of Technology said: “I think there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of a lack of transparency.”
When asked whether he would undergo this risky experiment with his own child, He firmly replied “yes”, saying that he would have used his own unborn baby if they were faced with the same situation.
The majority of fellow scientists have also commented that many questions still hang over the work, although He reaffirmed his promise that the data will be peer reviewed soon.
“I feel more disturbed now,” said David Liu of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, inventor of a variation of the gene-editing tool, according to the Associated Press. “It’s an appalling example of what not to do about a promising technology that has great potential to benefit society.
“I hope it never happens again.”