Chinese scientist claims first gene-edited babies have been born

CRISPR co-inventor Feng Zhang calls for ‘moratorium of edited embryos’

On Sunday, Chinese scientists at the Southern University of Science and Technology announced via YouTube that the first pair of gene-edited babies had been born.

Led by He Jiankui, the team of researchers had recruited couples for a study where CRISPR-Cas9 was used to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in human embryos before implanting them into women using in vitro fertilization (IVF). CCR5 codes for a receptor used by the HIV, smallpox, and cholera viruses to infect host cells. Jiankui hoped that the elimination of this gene would result in resistance to these viruses in the children.

In the video, Jiankui announced that one of the couples had successfully become pregnant, and had given birth to twin girls earlier this month. He declined to identify the couple or the region in which they reside, and the success of this study has not been independently confirmed. The study was carried out secretly, with the MIT Technology Review and The Associated Press breaking the news this past Sunday.

This announcement prompted significant backlash from the global scientific community, especially in light of the fact that it was released hours before a global gene-editing summit in Hong Kong that aimed to discuss how such technologies would be governed. Many scientists condemned Jiankui’s work, calling it unnecessary, given current preventative measures for HIV, smallpox, and cholera, and reckless, as gene-editing can cause off-target effects that are difficult to predict and have significant developmental consequences.

Researchers at the Broad Institute released statements on Monday in opposition to Jiankui’s work. Feng Zhang, a molecular biologist who pioneered the usage of CRISPR in eukaryotic cells, noted, “Although I appreciate the global threat posed by HIV, at this stage, the risk of editing embryos to knock out CCR5 seems to outweigh the potential benefits, not to mention that knocking out CCR5 will likely render a person much more susceptible for West Nile Virus.” In the statement, Zhang called for a “moratorium on implantation of edited embryos … until we have come up with a thoughtful set of safety requirements.”

David Liu, director of the Merkin Institute for Transformative Technologies in Healthcare at the Broad Institute, conveyed similar concerns, calling the development “a serious breach of ethics that I hope will serve as a wake-up call for the community” and noting that “there may be a future in which embryo editing is justified following a careful analysis of potential benefits, risks, and ethical issues, but the recently reported work does not meet these standards.”

In contrast, George Church of Harvard University defended the study in a comment to the AP, calling it “justifiable” in the face of the growing threat of HIV. Jiankui defended the study using a 2017 gene-editing report from the U.S. Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which stated that gene-editing could be performed to prevent serious illness. However, the U.S. Academies are not a regulatory organization, only providing guidelines for responsible conduct of research. The U.S. Academies released a statement on Tuesday affirming the recommendations made in their 2017 report.

The Southern University of Science and Technology has publicly stated that Juinkui’s work violates academic ethics and standards, and plans to investigate the work. The Shenzhen City Medical Ethics Expert Board also plans to investigate. Jiankui stood by his work in a statement to the AP, stating that “I believe this is going to help the families and their children.”