Chinese Gene-Editing Scientist Conducts Ground-Breaking, Yet Controversial Procedure

A Chinese scientist is claiming to be the first to genetically edit babies before their birth. On Wednesday, He Jiankui spoke before the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, stating that he was able to genetically modify the genes of two twin girls; claiming that they will both be immune to HIV.

Dr. He told the summit of nearly 700 people that he performed the procedure in a safe and ethical manner and concluded that he was ‘proud’ of his achievements. Dr. He also told the conference that a third child is expected in the future, as a separate woman allowed the scientist to genetically modify her embryo in its early stages.

The two twin girls, ‘Lulu’ and ‘Nana’ were born “normal and healthy,” earlier this month, and will be monitored over the next 18 years. The father of the twins was expected to have contracted HIV, which influenced the parents to allow Dr. He to conduct the procedure.

Dr. He claimed that he submitted his study to a scientific journal, although it is unspecified as to what exact academic publishing.

Despite the presumably ground-breaking findings by Dr. He, many other scientists have condemned the doctor’s research; calling his work ‘unethical.’ Gene-editing is illegal in most countries, including China, as it may raise the risk of other potential complications.

The gene-editing technique used by Dr. He, dubbed Crispr, has also received a wide range of criticism from members of the scientific community, as it is unclear if any alterations to human DNA will have an effect on future generations, and to what degree. Some scientists have especially been critical of Dr. He’s lack of transparency, accusing him of conducting irresponsible and borderline illegal procedures.

Dr. David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and organizer of the conference, stated:

“I don’t think it has been a transparent process. We only found out about it after it happened, and after the children were even born. I personally don’t think it was medically necessary,”

With other scientists, such as Dr. Robin Lovell-Badge questioning Dr. He’s secrecy of the process. Dr. Lovell-Badge continued by mentioning that the process broke the law, and even mentioned that had Chinese authorities known of Dr. He’s intentions, the entire study would have been shut down.

Dr. He made it clear that he was unapologetic for the procedure, and the only remorse he felt was the fact that his news was released sooner than he planned. The scientist mentioned that he initially paid for the procedures out of his own pocket, but later accepted some university funding.

Dr. He is an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. Despite receiving some funding from the school, he did not specify what research he was conducting.

The professor has been on an unpaid leave of absence from the school since February of this year.

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Daniel Mitri

Daniel Mitri is a Toronto-based writer with an interest in music, travel and food. Aside from writing, he spends most of his time playing bass guitar and frequenting 24-hour restaurants. Follow him on Twitter @MitriTweets.

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