A Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies has been condemned by scientists and religious figures for his “immoral” action.
On Nov. 25, He Jiankui, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, announced on YouTube that twin girls with altered genes were born in China this month.
The genes of “Lulu” and “Nana” have been edited so that they are naturally resistant to HIV, the scientist told the Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong on Nov. 28.
His work has not been verified. Such gene-editing work is banned in most countries, including China. His university said it was unaware of the research project and would launch an investigation. It said the scientist had been on unpaid leave since February.
The professor spoke in English at the summit, saying he felt “proud” of his research.
He explained that eight couples — comprised of HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers — had signed up voluntarily for the experiment, but one couple later dropped out.
He said HIV is a problem in many developing countries and causes infected children to be discriminated against. “The things we can do to help these people are the necessity of this project,” he said.
The professor said that he would not disclose the identity of the babies due to the violation of Chinese laws and his university did not know about the experiment.
He said the meeting with the participating couples had lasted about 70 minutes to ensure they understood the study and agreed to accept the implantation of two embryos in the mother.
He said the research team will continue to monitor the growth and health of the twins until they are 18. “I will take care of them with all my money and energy. I am willing to take responsibility for the rest of my life,” he said.
After listening to He’s speech, Tsui Lap-chee, president of the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, said the professor had failed to clarify doubts about his experiment.
The geneticist told ucanews.com that there is a code to follow in scientific research. “Every step is to testify and share with others, but he is eager to succeed. In the end, the babies are his experimental product, not the recipient of medical help. This is totally out of ethical standards.”
Tsui said the experiment was “completely unqualified” from a moral point of view. “It was wrong to do research with AIDS because AIDS has had drugs to treat it and can also be prevented through education. Then why use such a difficult method to solve this problem?” he asked.
He described the two girls as “unfortunate” and said the incident proved that it was necessary to strengthen the moral and ethical review of scientific experiments, and even to discuss whether to regulate such experiments by law or licensing.
Father Joseph Tham, a professor in the school of bioethics at the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, told ucanews.com that it seemed the scientist had not thought about the experiment from the babies’ point of view.
“Did he think about their future? What about their psychological and health development? It seems no one knows and it is unfair to the girls. Although he says that he will take care of them, he is not a doctor and their relationship is with a scientist,” he said.
The priest also pointed out that in terms of informed consent, “we have very strict requirements. Did he tell the parents that the experiment was unprecedented and the result unknown?”
Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, retired president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, was quoted by Vatican News as saying that “the most important heritage of mankind is genetic inheritance,” which is inviolable “because any changes will have an impact on all mankind.” Therefore, “we must adhere to the principle of prudence and firmly say no.”
He said that not all technically feasible things were ethically feasible. The cardinal prayed for the Lord to give prudence, justice and the rigor of scientific research, and called on legislators to tighten the law in this area “because it is not just one person but all the people who are hurt.”