China’s National Health Commission vowed on Monday to “seriously investigate and verify” an experiment that allegedly created the world’s first genetically altered twins.
In a video posted on Sunday, Professor He Jiankui from the Southern University of Science and Technology announced the birth of twin girls whose DNA had been allegedly edited to prevent the possibility of contracting HIV. He revealed how he modified the twins’ DNA using CRISPR-Cas9, a technique that allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision.
“For forty years, regulations and morals have developed together with IVF,” he said in the video. “Gene surgery is another IVF advancement and is only meant to help a small number of families.”
The revelation led to a barrage of criticism from scientists around the world, with a joint statement signed by 120 leading Chinese scientists condemning such experimentation as “madness” while calling on authorities to enact laws against this kind of research.
“The Pandora’s Box has been opened, but we may still have a chance to close it before it is irreparable,” the statement read. “It is extremely unfair to Chinese scientists who are diligent, innovative and defending the bottom line of scientific ethics.”
In a statement on Monday, the country’s National Health Commission said that it is “paying close attention to reports of the experiment” and demanded that “local health authorities release information to the public in a timely manner.”
Research institutions have also distanced themselves from He’s work. His own university denounced the experiment as a “serious violation of academic ethics and norms” and emphasized it occurred outside of his paid employment.
The experiment also caused anger abroad. Joyce Harper, professor in genetics and human embryology at University College London (UCL) said, “Today’s report of genome editing human embryos for resistance to HIV is premature, dangerous and irresponsible.”
The news reportedly sparked intense debate on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Users expressed concern about the technology’s potential for use by wealthy couples to create “designer babies” and “superhumans.” They also posted quotations from the late British scientist Stephen Hawking, who spoke of the “significant political problems” posed by humans who have not been genetically modified.
The case raises further questions about the ethics of genetic engineering. Many researchers in the field fear that a rapid adoption of such modifications could lead to a world where eugenics is a social norm. Responding to the criticism, He contested that “ethics are on our side” because of the nature of the problem he was addressing.
“I think parents who really love their children will not use gene editing to increase their babies’ intelligence, hair or eye color. These should be banned,” He said. “And I know my work can be controversial, but I believe some families need the technology.”