When news broke in November 2018 that the first gene-edited human babies had been born in an experiment conducted by Jiankiu He, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUStech) in Shenzhen, the initial reaction from Chinese authorities was positive. Indeed, the People’s Daily—official newspaper of China’s Communist Party—used the words “milestone achievement” to describe the twin girls’ birth.
Jiankiu He had used the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 in an attempt to replicate a mutation in the CCR5 gene known to offer immunity to the HIV virus. This mutation—known as CCR5Δ32—occurs naturally among about 10 percent of the Northern European population, but rarely in China. He said that he had conducted the work because he’d wanted to give the resulting babies immunity against HIV, and that he thought his work would be met with praise. Instead, as soon as news of his work was revealed—by MIT’s Technology Review, in late November 2018 (Regalado 2018)—negative feedback started rolling in, particularly at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, in Hong Kong, which coincidentally took place a few days after the publication of the MIT article, and where He presented his research (He Q&A 2018). Scientists described He’s work as ethically irresponsible, saying that among other things, the use of CRISPR-Cas9 for human reproduction has not been proven safe.
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