A Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies said at a conference on Wednesday that his actions were safe and ethical, and he asserted that he was proud of what he had done. But many other scientists seemed highly skeptical, with a conference organiser calling his actions irresponsible.
“For this specific case, I feel proud, actually,” the scientist, He Jiankui, said at an international conference on genome editing in Hong Kong.
Indeed, the only thing He apologised for was that news had “leaked unexpectedly” that he had used the gene-editing technique Crispr to alter embryos and then implanted them in the womb of a woman who gave birth to twin girls this month.
According to an AP report, He said a second pregnancy may be underway. The second pregnancy is in a very early stage and needs more time to be monitored to see if it will last, He said.
He’s announcement of his embryo editing Monday sent a thunderbolt through the scientific world. Scientists have been working to prevent just such a rogue use of the rapidly advancing technology for making changes in human DNA.
Scores of scientists — including many of the top genetics experts gathered in Hong Kong — have called He’s conduct unethical. They say there are serious unanswered questions about the safety of embryo editing and a need to make sure that such research is conducted in a transparent, monitored way so the technology isn’t misused. And He’s presentation Wednesday afternoon did not seem to mollify many of his colleagues’ concerns.
Immediately after his presentation, David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate who led the conference’s organising committee, told the audience that what He had done “would still be considered irresponsible”.
Baltimore added, “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.”
Robin Lovell-Badge, a professor of genetics and embryology at the Francis Crick Institute in London who moderated the session, asked a question that he said was on many attendees’ minds. “Why so much secrecy around this, particularly when you know the general feeling around the scientific community is we shouldn’t go ahead yet?” he asked. “You know the accusation now is that you’ve broken the law. If you had involved the Chinese authorities, they might have said you can’t do it.”
When He, 34, walked onstage in an open-collar shirt carrying a tan briefcase, it was clear this would be no ordinary conference presentation. Although his appearance had been previously scheduled, Lovell-Badge said He had earlier “sent me the slides he was going to show in this presentation and it didn’t include anything that he is going to talk about today.”
Facing a packed auditorium of scientists and members of the media, He also acknowledged that he had not made his university in China aware of the research he was doing.
But he asserted that he had not been overly secretive about his work, saying that he had presented preliminary aspects of it at conferences and consulted with scientists in the US and elsewhere. He said he had submitted his research to a scientific journal for review and had not expected to be presenting it at this conference.
And he insisted that the parents of the twins and seven other couples who had participated in his research were fully informed of the risks involved, and that they understood what was being done to their embryos.
Xu Nanping, China’s vice minister of science and technology, said Tuesday that the Chinese government had issued regulations in 2003 that permitted gene-editing experiments on embryos for research purposes, but only if they remain viable no more than 14 days, according to the state broadcaster China Central Television. If the Chinese authorities confirm that the babies were born, that would be in violation of current regulations, Xu said.