It was perhaps inevitable at some point but the moment appears to have come slightly earlier than many may have thought. A Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, claims that a woman from the city of Shenzhen has given birth to the first genetically modified human offspring. The twins, referred to as Lulu and Nana, pseudonyms given to protect their identities, were ‘genetically edited’ using Crispr, a biotechnology that allows DNA strands to be ‘snipped’. The advanced genomics technique is used to modify or disable faulty genes, though in theory it could be used on any kind of genes, changing even those considered to be healthy.
Dr He used genetic editing on the twin girls to prevent the risk of the HIV virus, which their father is infected with, being able to be passed on to them. Lulu and Nana were conceived through IVF treatment, with “a little bit of protein and instructions for a gene surgery”, as explained in the YouTube video Dr He used as the medium to make his announcement, added to both the mother’s eggs and father’s sperm. The gene editing procedure carried out while the babies were still single cells cut out their CCR5 gene. This is the particular gene that provides the gateway used by the HIV virus to infect the body.
However, despite the arguably medical justification for the procedure, the announcement has provoked a deluge of criticism centred around the ethics around using the Crisp gene editing technology on humans. What Dr He has achieved is not technically illegal in China, which has more flexible regulations around biotechnology research and practice, especially with regard to genetic modification. However, despite that, a joint statement that termed the trial ‘insane’ has been signed by 100 leading Chinese scientists and academics. Shenzhen’s medical ethics committee is also said to have launched an investigation into the case.
Ethical concerns centre around the fact that there is still a huge amount that biotechnology does not know about how the kind of gene editing carried out by Dr He. There is a risk that the wrong part of the genome could be edited or that unforeseen consequences may manifest themselves in future generations who, as yet unborn, are unable to provide consent. The wider international scientific community is not yet comfortable that it can be said what the results could be of edited genes making their way into the wider human gene pool. Quoted in the Financial Times, University College of London professor of embryology Joyce Harper chastised Dr He’s claims of a successful trial as “premature, dangerous and irresponsible”.
The twin babies are, says He “as healthy as any other babies”. Whatever the eventual outcome, and hopefully for the sake of Lulu and Nana it is positive in this instance, Dr He’s trial demonstrates the clear and urgent need for new international consensus around human gene editing. In the case of the twins, there are other options, already approved as safe, that can be used to prevent HIV infection in children whose parents, either one or both, have the virus.