It came as a bolt in the blue when in the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, it was revealed that the Chinese biophysicist, ‘He Jiankui’ had brought CRISPR-edited human babies into the world. The summit in Hong Kong last November was held to discuss the pros and cons of genetically engineered humans.
Using the powerful gene modification tool called CRISPR, He had edited the DNA of twin girls.
He continued to blow the bewildered gene editing experts when he told them that a second Chinese woman was pregnant with yet another CRISPR baby. An early pregnancy test had confirmed it.
In January, William Hurlbut (Stanford bioethicist) announced that Dr. He had gene-hacked the 3rd embryo and that the child would be born in late June or early July. Hulburt was in regular contact with Dr. He since 2017 and is aware of the timeline of events. Hurlbut knows when the 3rd baby was conceived but has kept it private since he doesn’t want the identification of the parents and child.
“What I can say is that normal birth is 38 to 42 weeks, and it’s pretty close to the center of that,” said Hurlbut.
Shortly after He announced his first work, the Chinese government condemned the experiments and worked to broaden its set of laws for scientific research. However, the Chinese government’s secrecy around the gene-hacking controversy has become a point of argument among prominent scientists. A bioethicist at the University of Miami, Rosario Isasi, says that she has encouraged science leaders there to “make a statement and do some damage control.”
However, the Chinese government does not want to invite much attention, and experts in China are reluctant to discuss Dr. He’s experiment on social-media networks such as WeChat, which are closely monitored. “The government of China is extremely aware of any transgressions. They have the Hong Kong protests, they have the Tiananmen anniversary, and they have the CRISPR babies,” says Isasi.
After Professor He let the cat out of the bag, the Chinese CRISPR experiment was widely criticized and quickly halted. However, not much can be done to stop people from using the widely-accessible CRISPR technology to edit more human genomes, but governments and universities can work to prevent their scientists from doing so. Even though there are calls for a global moratorium, it is impossible to control access to the gene-altering tech, which is relatively easy to use. In June, a scientist in Russia said he hopes to be next to make CRISPR babies if he can win approval.
After the revelation that He had employed CRISPR to get women pregnant with genetically edited babies, the biophysicist posted a series of YouTube videos (see below), claiming his new editing of human embryos had led to the birth of “2 beautiful little Chinese girls,” fraternal twins whom he called Nana and Lulu.
His team had used CRISPR to edit a single gene, called CCR5, in an attempt to make the girls immune to infection by the HIV virus.
Much to his disappointment, Dr. He was severely condemned by experts around the globe, including in China, for carrying out a risky and medically pointless experiment. 2 days later after posting his videos, He attended the Hong Kong summit, where he was allowed to present his experimental results. During the questioning session, answering to the British developmental biologist Robin Lovell-Badge that He said yet another CRISPR baby was on the way.
As Dr. He had already received threats, Jiankui had hidden in a room before his appearance in Hong Kong and was immediately guided by security officials afterward. “The whole idea was to get Jiankui to talk, because we knew that this would be the only opportunity that a lot of people would have of interacting with him,” Robin would later write as part of a history of the fast-moving events surrounding the Honk Kong summit.
The health ministry then reprimanded him in Guangdong, where he worked and fired from his university. Professor He has not been heard from or seen since January when Chinese investigators accused him of potential crimes.
At the time, they also verified that another pregnancy was still underway and the mother was under his medical observation. He says the 3rd baby also had its copies of CCR5 removed.
It is yet doubtful whether Dr. He’s team established the 2nd pregnancy after the CRISPR twins were born or shortly before. Anyway, Dr. He was confident that his experiment would be a great success. “He believed what he was doing was bringing glory to his home country. What surprised him the most was that he was criticized in his own homeland,” says Hurlbut.
After the events unfolded, it became clear that He did not act alone or privately. Some American journalists and scientists who by then knew about Dr. He’s undertaking did not stop the 3rd baby from being created. These include Nobel laureate Dr. Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts, Stanford University’s Dr. Stephen Quake, and reporters from the reputed Associated Press, all of whom kept He’s experiments hush-hush. For his part, Hurlbut regrets he was not able to convince Dr. He not to proceed. “I felt that if I had one more long talk with He, I might have stopped him,” Hurlbut said.
Now the question arises whether Chinese authorities will acknowledge the birth of the 3rd child. At the summit, all the scientists agreed that scientific data about the babies born using CRSIPR should be made available to the public. Scientists will want to know the results of editing on the child’s genes and whether CRISPR can produce live births.
Earlier this year, China’s government took action to clarify its laws and procedures on gene editing, including introducing new penalization. However, Dr. Isasi, who has participated in meetings of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says that many researchers in China continue to “express a lot of frustration over the lack of transparency” in connection with the He investigation.
“If you look at the big picture, there is a concerted effort by the Chinese government to change the regulatory framework. So why would they keep it secret?” she says. “But they can if they want, and the world will never know. The Chinese government owes it to the international community to live up to the accountability they have promised.”
However, everyone is agreed on one point: the actual identities of the three babies and their parents should be kept secret. Otherwise, the children might grow up with ungreeted attention for having been made by a scientist.“The Chinese think there is a need for privacy, not to make it into a big circus,” says Isasi.