By Mackenzie Pittman
On November 26 in Hong Kong, He Jiankui, a physicist from the Southern University of Science and Technology of China, revealed his effort and alleged success, in editing the genes of two twin girl embryos before implanting them in the mother. The twin girls were born earlier in November, becoming the world’s “first” genetically-altered babies. The edited DNA in question was CCR5, chosen to help prevent future contraction of the AIDS virus.
What it means:
While He Jiankui declared his experiment a success, no official journal had been submitted for review by the biomedical community. He Jiankui stated that, “…I feel proud, actually.” The unexpected declaration by He Jiankui sent a literal thunderbolt through the scientific community. Since the experiment had not been conducted in a transparent process, there is ample confusion and suspicion surrounding the event. One thing for sure is, his research, whether ethical or unethical, opened a major debate over the legality of his actions and how experiments concerning gene editing technology will proceed in the future.
How people are reacting:
On Wednesday, November 28, a large number of scientists and high-ranking genetics experts attended a conference in Hong Kong to discuss the recent events. He Jiankui’s presentation on his “scientific breakthrough” was immediately met with confusion, suspicion, and outrage. Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, commented that, “It is profoundly unfortunate that the first apparent application of this powerful technique to the human germline has been carried out so irresponsibly.” Along with Dr. David Baltimore, a Nobel Laureate who didn’t think the procedure was “medically necessary,” many scientists even believe if Chinese authorities had been notified or conferred, He Jiankui would not have been able to conduct his experiment. All attendants realized limits on such actions need to be put in place in order to prevent abuse and misuse of gene editing technology in the future.