Gene tampering prompts investigation

Graphic by Callie Wohlgemuth ’21

Graphic by Callie Wohlgemuth ’21


He Jiankui is an associate professor of biology at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. He has recently claimed to have successfully modified the genes of infant twins, the first in the world to do so. He announced on Monday, Nov. 26 that his team had successfully altered the genes of twin baby girls under the pseudonyms Nana and Lulu, who were born earlier this month in Guangdong Province, according to The Beijing News. The goal, He said in an interview, was to produce babies with the ability to resist HIV infection in the future by disabling CCR5, a gene that enables the virus to take hold.

According to guidelines by the National Population and Family Planning Commission implemented in December 2016, Chinese law stipulates that biomedical research in human diseases must first be reviewed by ethics authorities. As modern biologists make huge leaps towards controlling embryos and stem cells in ways that can create novel reproductive methods, the National Population and Family Planning Commission has been more serious about such regulations.

Shenzhen’s medical ethics authorities denied receiving any application to conduct He’s research, and over 120 Chinese scientists have issued a joint objection to this experiment, condemning He’s actions as “lunatic” and his claims “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science in the world.” Meanwhile, He’s university has also distanced itself from his work, claiming that it was not aware of the experiment. The HarMoniCare Shenzhen Women’s and Children’s Hospital, a private hospital in Shenzhen that has been linked to He’s experiment, has also denied any association with him. Nevertheless, Shenzhen’s top health authority is investigating the hospital’s possible involvement.

Zhang Linqi, a professor at Tsinghua University who specializes in HIV treatment, said that He’s gene modification experiment using healthy embryos is “unwise and unethical.”

“We haven’t found that Chinese people are able to go without the CCR5 [gene] entirely,” Zhang said. “The removal of CCR5 is not able to entirely prevent HIV infection due to the high variability of HIV.” According to George Church, a professor from Harvard University, concerns about the aftermath of such gene modification revolve around the issue of safety. “Even if editing worked perfectly, people without normal CCR5 genes face higher risks of getting certain other viruses, such as West Nile, and of dying from the flu,” he said.

Patricia Brennan, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke, spoke about the incident. “He’s behavior is extremely unethical,” she said. “This should not be a decision made lightly by a single individual working in secret in a lab, someone who did not even publish the experiments he said he conducted to make sure the technique was safe, and actually accomplished what he says it did.” Brennan explained that an experiment this major should have been conducted only after thorough discussion, both with experts and the general public. Without the safeguards provided by such oversight, Brennan said, “these children might suffer from unintended consequences that could have long lasting effects and be passed on to their own children permanently.”

Holly Chen ’20 had similar concerns. “I don’t think that today’s society has reached the stage where people are ready to face the technical and ethical problems of gene-edited babies. It’s like opening up a Pandora’s Box,” she said

While speaking during the Second International Summit on Human Gene Editing, He was grilled on whether his experiment had crossed ethical boundaries. But He maintained that he had been interacting with experts and ethicists before and during his clinical trials. Additionally, the couples included in the experiment were allegedly thoroughly informed about the process and potential risks. The twins, Lulu and Nana, are the only successful pregnancy so far, and all the other clinical trials have been put on hold in light of this controversy.

In regard to the project’s funding, He clarified that the couples had been compensated for participating in the experiment. “Medical care and expense for the patients was paid by myself,” He said, without elaborating on how much the project had cost him altogether. He admitted, though, that some costs had been covered by “startup funding” from the university. As the university claimed to have nothing to do with the project and closed He’s laboratory, the source of funding remains unclear.

The vice minister of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Xue Nanping, said during a high-level meeting on Tuesday Nov. 27 that if He’s conduct is confirmed, his actions will be handled according to the law.

Amid waves of controversies, He said that his only intention is to help people develop immunity against HIV. “For this specific case, I feel proud,” he said. “I feel proudest, because [the baby girls’ parents] had lost hope for life.”