People’s Daily on Monday published a web report claiming that a Chinese scientist helped give birth to the world’s first babies whose genes have been genetically edited to be resistant to the deadly HIV/AIDS viruses.
But the story was soon deleted. As of now, we at CGTN have no knowledge of whether the report is true or not.
The scientist, He Jiankui, works at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTC) and described his project in a video published online by his team.
He claimed that the two babies, Lulu and Nana, were born “a few weeks ago” and are living with their parents, who are identified as Grace and Mark in the video, with no Chinese names provided.
He said his team performed surgery on the two babies when they were only single cells. The surgery “removed the doorway through which HIV enters to infect people,” making the babies immune to AIDS, he claimed.
But CGTN have not yet been able to find proof that the babies are actually immune.
He claimed his team used the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing tool to carry out the surgery.
The news came one day before an international conference on gene editing that is scheduled to last from Tuesday to Thursday in China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The story has shocked both the world of academia and the Internet in China, fueling a range of debates, including the credibility of the research and the ethical concerns behind it.
In an exclusive report on MIT Technology Review, some “medical documents” show how He got the permit to carry out the surgery from a hospital in south China’s Shenzhen City.
But The Beijing News reports that the hospital has denied any involvement in the surgery.
The SUSTC also published an announcement on Monday evening, saying the university does not know about He’s surgery and stands against it.
“He Jiankui used gene-editing technology on human embryos. Our biology department thinks this is a serious breach of scientific ethics,” the announcement said.
The local government also launched an investigation into the surgery, as He seemingly failed to obtain legal permission to carry it out.
China’s National Health Commission published regulations on biological research on humans, which requires hospitals to set up and register an ethical committee to carry out such research.
The commission ordered its branch in Guangdong Province to carefully investigate the incident.
“The ethical committee that gave He the permit is not registered,” said the local health commission in Shenzhen.
The health commission of Guangdong Province said a team of investigators will be dispatched to Shenzhen on Monday night.
Other researchers in China also raised concerns. Dozens of them signed an announcement attacking He’s conduct. “It can only be described as madness,” the announcement said.
“The gene-editing technology is nothing new to scientists. The reason why we don’t carry it out on humans is that the technology may fail and be ethically wrong,” the researchers added.
Science Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper covering sci-tech news, raised four questions about the gene-edited babies:
1. Will the editing definitely prevent the babies from catching HIV? Will this alteration cause other illnesses or potential problems?
2. How can we prove that the babies are immune to AIDS? We cannot try to infect them since it’s obviously unethical. If they don’t catch HIV for their entire lives, how can we make sure they are immune?
3. Is it ethical to edit the genes of test tube babies? Is there any government approval? Is the hospital authorized to do it?
4. Have there been any previous experiments editing human genes in China?
He Jiankui refused to take part in the ongoing debate.
“He will not take interviews for now. A reply will be made in a few days. No more information can be given at the time,” financial media Yicai quoted He’s media representative as saying.
CGTN Digital called He’s work telephone multiple times, but no one answered.
A YouTube channel called “The He Lab” uploaded five videos showing He and a team member explaining why they chose AIDS as their first target.
“The gene we chose, CCR5, is one of the best studied genes. In fact about 100 million people naturally have a genetic variation that disables CCR5, protecting them against HIV,” he said in the video. “They are healthy.”
CCR5, according to He, is what his team cut off from the gene of the two babies.
He also explains why they think they did the right thing.
“A child is not something to design,” he said in the video. “And that is not what parents want to do.”
In the videos, He mentioned multiple times that the main goal of his research is to eliminate genetic diseases.
“We believe ethics are on our side of history,” he said in the video.