China Confirms Birth of Gene-Edited Twins

China scientist defends gene-editing babies as trial paused
AFP Anthony WALLACE
JOHN HAYWARD

Chinese authorities answered one of the lingering questions in the case of rogue scientist He Jiankui on Monday by confirming the twin girls he claims to have genetically edited as embryos were born and are currently under medical supervision.

He Jiankui rocked the medical community, and enraged Chinese officials, by announcing in November that he modified the DNA of the twins to make them immune to the HIV virus carried by their father. Monday’s announcement was the first official confirmation of He’s claim that the girls were born alive and healthy.

The South China Morning Post on Monday reported concerns for both the safety of the children and the future of the human race:

A biologist, who asked not to be identified, said: “This is a result I’m happy to see,” he said. ”This should be the way. There needs to be protection of the babies too.”

He said he had also researched gene-editing but all experiments were done on lab rats only.

In an interview with Beijing Youth Daily on Sunday, Shao Feng, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and deputy director of the National Institute of Biological Sciences, said the whole incident would need to be investigated thoroughly.

“If I were to handle the matter, I would never tell [the twins] they’ve been gene-edited and allow them to live their lives like normal people,” he said. “I think that’s for the best.”

An expert in the field, Shao is worried about potential health risks the children will face as well as the incident’s effect on the human race.

“Once the gate of gene-editing is wide open, the human race will be finished,” he said. “The technology is strong but the terrifying fact is that anyone slightly trained in a lab can perform it.”

He Jiankui may or may not be under house arrest at the university that employs him, but his work is clearly under intense investigation, and all of his projects have been suspended. In addition to the troubling questions about genetic engineering raised by his work, he has been accused of violating ethical standards, including a challenge to his claim that he submitted the gene-editing project to review by a hospital ethics committee before proceeding. 

Investigators in Guangdong province stated on Monday that He acted alone, evading oversight by privately raising funds for the project, and will be punished for violating unspecified laws.

“This behavior seriously violates ethics and the integrity of scientific research, is in serious violation of relevant national regulations and creates a pernicious influence at home and abroad,” said the authorities.

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