This Rogue Scientist Claims He Created First Gene-Edited Babies
And so, it begins…
A scientist in China claims he used the controversial gene-editing tool CRISPR, to create genetically modified babies, or what some would refer to as designer babies. The stunning revelation came this past Sunday when Chinese geneticist He Jiankui, Ph.D., proclaimed to a genome summit in Hong Kong that he proudly altered the genes of twin girls to give them HIV immunity.
The announcement shocked medical communities that believed such a procedure to genetically modify humans was still years away – not to mention, use of the technology on humans remains illegal in most countries, including China.
Professor He’s claim has yet to be verified officially, while he was placed on unpaid leave by the institution at which he is employed, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. The university released a statement saying it was unaware of He’s research project and that it would conduct an investigation.
CRISPR technology – a protein that essentially snips individual segments of DNA strands to rewrite our genetic code – has been known and available to scientists since 2012. It’s use however, has been relegated to animals and plants as scientists fear the unknown consequences it could potentially have on humans.
And then there’s also the whole ethical issue of playing god…
But many view CRISPR as the answer to a lot of our physical impediments, including disease, genetic mutation and just about any other form of weakness related to, or caused by our mortality. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just edit out the parts of our DNA that are susceptible to diseases that kill thousands or even millions of people every year?
Yes, it absolutely would be, however there are other implications that this argument tends to gloss over, such as the eerie similarities it has to the idealist principle of genetic philosophy the Nazi’s were so fond of: eugenics.
There’s also the likely possibility that the technology, much like other pharmaceuticals and elective operations, will only be available to the über wealthy, who will inevitably be able to pay for genetically and physically perfect progeny, subsequently leading to a superior race of humans that will undoubtedly exacerbate class inequality. Stephen Hawking even predicted this in his posthumously released, final publication, Brief Answers to the Big Questions.
According to He, the twin girls whose DNA he edited were born normal and healthy and would be closely monitored until the age of 18. He also claimed his project was submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal for publication.
He’s colleagues, particularly those present at the conference to hear the announcement, said they believed he was telling the truth. Reactions were mixed however, with many scientists expressing negative sentiment and even signing a condemnation of his work, due to the fact that He skirted laws, ethical standards, and other general protocols, in order to give China “a world’s first,” as He referred to it.
Aside from moral implications, many brought up the fact that He chose HIV as the target for editing – a preventable virus that is not a genetic condition.
Ironically, He was critical of scientists using CRISPR gene editing technology in the past, responding to a report through a blog post, in which he stated, “the human behavior of any person who performs germ cell editing or gene editing is extremely irresponsible, both in terms of science and social ethics, without addressing these important security issues.”
Apparently, He had a very drastic change of heart…
For ways to edit your genetic code without the use of controversial CRISPR technology check out this episode of Open Minds with Richard Rudd: