He Jiankui, the scientist who claims to have used CRISPR to edit the genomes of twin girls born earlier this month, announced today (November 28) at a conference in China that a second pregnancy with a CRISPR-modified embryo is progress, the Associated Press reports.
“This is a truly unacceptable development,” Jennifer Doudna, the University of California, Berkeley, RNA biologist who co-invented CRISPR-based gene editing, tells the AP.
“I feel more disturbed now,” adds David Liu of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute who invented a form of CRISPR that allows for base editing. “It’s an appalling example of what not to do about a promising technology that has great potential to benefit society. I hope it never happens again.”
Speaking at the Second International Summit On Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, He, a professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said that the pregnancy is at an early stage, the AP notes. But Reuters reports that He referred to it as a “potential” pregnancy and left listeners wondering whether or not it had ended in miscarriage.
He argued in his conference talk that the editing he did on the embryos of the newborn twin girls and on the third embryo—which, if successful, would confer resistance to HIV infection—is akin to a vaccine, the AP reports.
Others strongly disagree with He’s assessment and with his general approach. The research took place largely in secret, which researchers have decried. “I don’t think it has been a transparent process,” Caltech’s David Baltimore, who is a leader of the conference, said in a talk following He’s, according to Reuters. “Only found out about it after it happened and the children were born,” Baltimore continued.
Beyond the secrecy and the question of whether any form of gene editing in humans should have taken place, scientists at the conference, including Baltimore, say that this particular use of gene editing was inappropriate, the AP reports. In previous discussions of how gene editing could potentially be used, many scientists have agreed that it should be applied only to prevent serious genetic disorders without alternative treatments. Although HIV is not curable, it can be preventable and treatable.
“I disagree with the notion of stepping out of the general consensus of the scientific community,” Stanford University ethicist William Hurlbut tells the AP. To act on science before it’s considered ready and safe is “going to create misunderstanding, discordance and distrust,” he says.
The Southern University of Science and Technology is investigating the project, as are local officials in Shenzhen. The Shenzhen City Medical Ethics Expert Board and the Chinese Academy of Science’s academic division are also looking into the case, the AP notes.
Rice University is also investigating the involvement of one of its professors, Michael Deem, who was He’s graduate advisor. The National Institutes of Health is calling for an international intervention, according to the AP. “Without such limits, the world will face the serious risk of a deluge of similarly ill-considered and unethical projects,” the agency says in a statement, according to the AP.