China is launching a probe into Chinese researcher’s claim of creating the world’s first ‘genetically edited’ babies

China is launching a probe into Chinese researcher’s claim of creating the world’s first ‘genetically edited’ babies

  • The National Health Commission in China is launching an investigation into the claims of the world’s first ‘genetically edited’ babies by Chinese researcher, He Jiankui.
  • Organisations allegedly involved in the experiment are claiming no knowledge or involvement in Jiankui’s experiment.
  • Even the university where he claimed to use the gene editing technology says Jiankui was on unpaid leave since February.
  • Jiankui’s research has not been peer-reviewed and is yet to feature in any scientific journal.
The recent claim by a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, of being the first to create ‘genetically edited’ babies — twin girls known as ‘Lulu’ and ‘Nana’— is being investigated by the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China.

Jiankui has alleged that the girls had their embryos modified in order to give them an advantage that only a few people are naturally born with — the ability to resist any future infection of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Such a discovery could be revolutionary for the medical community and the world at large. But, many of the organisations involved, including one of the hospitals, are denying involvement in any such endeavor.

Jiankui claims to have used CRISPR gene editing technology at the the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen to modify the DNA during in-vitro fertilization. The university, on the other hand, claims that it knows nothing of any such research project being conducted and will launch its own investigation.

As per their records, Jiankui has been on unpaid leave since February.

The experiment was first reported by the MIT Technology Review and the Associated Press on Sunday. It is yet to be published in any scientific journal and neither has its data been peer-reviewed — common practices to establish the authenticity of any scientific discovery.

Sideline controversy

While the authenticity of the claim is being looked into, some experts in the scientific community feel that genetically modifying healthy embryos — gene therapy — may be a step too far. Such an experiment is likely to raise ethical concerns and could account for scientific misconduct.

A major concern seems to be that since the process is still experimental, these ‘designer babies’ could be subject to off-target mutations resulting in a wide plethora of genetic problems including an increased susceptibility to cancer.

Experts at the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) argue that gene therapy should only be applied in cases where the cause is ‘preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic and without enacting modifications for descendants’.

Modifying embryos could potentially lead to editing the human germline purely for non-medical purposes, which in turn would ‘jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics.’ Editing the germline would imply that the mutation would affect every cell in the person and that same mutation would be passed on to its offspring.