On November 25th 2018, Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, announced the birth of the first genetically altered humans: twins nicknamed Lulu and Nana (Yong 2018). Using a powerful gene-editing technology called Crispr, He altered human embryos and subsequently implanted them into female volunteers (Ramzy, and Wee). He purposefully recruited couples in which the man was HIV positive, ultimately aiming to make the baby immune to HIV/AIDS by altering the gene CCR5, through which the disease enters one’s cells (Begley & Joseph 2018). Lulu and Nana’s genes supposedly do have immunity to the HIV virus, and some are citing their birth as a remarkable innovation and a success for the scientific community.
However, while some journalists are calling the twins’ arrival “worthy of praise, love, dignity, and celebration” (Curchoe 2018), other sources point out the suspicious lack of peer review and the lack of a published paper to clarify the details of the experiment (Osborne 2018). It is unknown how these mutations will affect the girls, and whether or not the experiment was actually successful in immunizing the girls against HIV. It has also come to light that Lulu and Nana’s parents were not made aware of the full consequences of the experiment. He had failed to inform the participants of possible side-effects and made them sign consent forms which “absolved He’s team of legal responsibility” (Yong 2018).
He’s collaborator, Professor Michael Deem of Rice University, has been asked to turn over his research records to the university, while He himself has been condemned via an open letter from over 100 Chinese scientists (Begley & Joseph 2018). AIDS is both a preventable and manageable disease, so genetically altering children in order to grant them supposed immunity towards HIV appears to be an unnecessary risk with cons that outweigh the pros (Begley & Joseph 2018).
Lulu and Nana’s fates are still unknown, since we have yet to know the potential effects of the experiment on their future quality of life. Thus, while this experiment has definitely changed the world, it is still unclear if it was for better or for worse. He Jiankui’s lack of scientific integrity and his use of a controversial biotechnology raises enormous questions for science and society: in the pursuit of innovation, is it really alright to disregard ethical debates? If so, then is this really the kind of innovation we need?
Begley, Sharon, and Andrew Joseph. “'CRISPR Babies' Scientist He Jiankui Rose from Obscurity to Stun the World.” Statnews, STAT, 18 Dec. 2018, www.statnews.com/2018/12/17/crispr-shocker-genome-editing-scientist-he-jiankui/.
Curchoe, Carol Lynn. “My Letter to Lulu and Nana, the Worlds First CRISPR Gene Edited Babies.” Medium.com, Medium, 3 Dec. 2018, medium.com/@32ATPs/my-letter-to-lulu-and-nana-the-worlds-first-crispr-gene-edited-babies-77aa4ecec2fd.
Osborne, Charlie. “Meet Lulu and Nana, Claimed to Be the World's First Gene-Edited Children.” ZDNet, ZDNet, 26 Nov. 2018, www.zdnet.com/article/meet-lulu-and-nana-the-worlds-first-reported-gene-edited-children/
Ramzy, Austin, and Sui-Lee Wee. "Scientist Who Edited Babies’ Genes Is Likely To Face Charges In China". Nytimes.Com, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/21/world/asia/china-gene-editing-babies-he-jiankui.html.
Yong, Ed. “The CRISPR Baby Scandal Gets Worse by the Day.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 5 Dec. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/12/15-worrying-things-about-crispr-babies-scandal/577234/.