Chinese scientist He Jiankui today justified the "validity" of having created the world's first genetically modified babies without any institutional support and announced that there is another pregnant woman of an embryo whose genes have also been modified.
I announced this Monday that I had used the CRISPR / Cas9 technique in two twins to make them resistant to diseases like HIV, a revelation that generated controversies and doubts both from public opinion and from the scientific community inside and outside China.
The scientist had planned in advance to participate in a symposium on the Human Genome Edition at the University of Hong Kong, which sparked great academic and media interest today in the university campus where the conference was held.
"The study has given effective results and has been delivered for review" to the scientific community, He said.
The geneticist – who acknowledged that his experiment was not endorsed by any official institution – assured that the twins allegedly genetically edited, Lulu and Nana, "They were born healthy and happy", thanks to in vitro fertilization with genetic modification technology "that will prevent them from becoming infected with HIV".
However, he then announced that he is going to pause in his clinical trials "due to the controversies" that have arisen.
"All the excitement is due to the leakage of the news about my study," He estimated, which came "sooner than expected," while the moderator of the conference, Robin Lovell-Badge, confirmed that the organizers knew nothing of the experiment.
The scientist was "proud" of the use of the CRISPR / Cas9 gene editing technique and stressed that the study did not aim to eliminate genetic diseases, but to "give girls the natural ability" to resist a possible future HIV infection.
"Although there has been progress in HIV therapies, new infections remain a problem for many countries, especially the least developed," he added.
I have related that has experimented with seven couples, with one of their members infected with HIV, and announced that there is at least one pregnancy between them "in its early phase" and others more "possible".
"We have worked with seven couples in which the male is a carrier of the AIDS virus and the woman is not," he said, and specified that he used up to eleven embryos in six implantation attempts.
In a rather vague way, he indicated that he himself financed the experiment, which "was not carried away in secret" and who reported on it to scientists from China, the United States and the United Kingdom, although he did not mention any names.
"There are people who need help and we have the technology," he said, noting that the parents were informed of the risks involved in the experiment and showed their consent to it.
He also thanked the University of Science and Technology of the South of the city of Shenzhen with which he worked "even though they did not know" what he was doing.
Violation of ethics
Last Monday, the same university announced that it will investigate the scientist and affirmed that it was "deeply shocked by the case," which it qualified as "a serious violation of ethics and academic standards ".
The Chinese authorities, on the other hand, announced today that they are "very concerned" about the case, which they will "seriously" address once they clarify what happened.
Chinese Vice Minister of Science and Technology, Xu Nanping, reminded the press that China limits in vitro research on human embryonic stem cells to a maximum of 14 days in accordance with ethical guidelines issued in 2003.
More than 120 scholars from the Chinese scientific community said Monday in a statement issued on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, that "any attempt" to make changes in human embryos through genetic modifications is "crazy" and that giving light to these babies carries "a high risk".
Globally, Nature magazine joined the debate on Monday and said the announcement has caused "outrage" among the international scientific community and that, if true, "would represent a significant leap in the use of the modification of the human genome".
Nature pointed out that this type of tool has only been used so far to study its benefit in the elimination of disease-causing mutations, adding that the scientific community "has been asking for a long time" the creation of ethical guidelines, long before a case like this would arise. EFE