It has been approximately three months since the Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of the first two genetically modified babies in the history of mankind. The experiment shocked the world and provoked a widespread wave of condemnation from an international scientific community, eager for answers about what happened. China has channeled this outrage in the form of an investigation that could bring penal consequences for the controversial geneticist, but has not solved practically any of the many unknowns that surround the case.
I have stunned scientists from inside and outside China by announcing, at the end of November, who had modified the genetic information of two embryos using the CRISPR technique to supposedly make them more resistant to the AIDS virus. These two embryos had been implanted in the uterus of the mother and the result was the birth of two twins, Lulu and Nana, "in perfect health". Another pregnancy with the same characteristics is on the way without science having proven that this procedure does not generate secondary mutations that cause babies more damage than supposedly prevents the desired genetic change.
After the Chinese authorities confirmed that He's proclamations are true, the list of unknowns is long: What is the state of health of the twins at present? Is the second pregnancy still in progress? How is it possible that He managed to bypass all the controls in force in Chinese legislation in this regard? Where did the funding for the experiment come from?
In his preliminary inquiries, China has labeled He as a lone wolf who did what he did in order to "pursue fame and personal wealth." The funds used were from the geneticist himself and "any type of supervision was deliberately skipped," says the official version. However, according to documents obtained by the media Statnews, It is possible that He used funds granted directly or indirectly by the Chinese State for his research, although it is not clear that the agencies involved - the Ministry of Science and Technology, the municipal government of the city of Shenzhen and the University in which I worked - they knew what was being invested. The case is in the hands of the Ministry of Public Security, which has not given any information on the matter.
There are other questions added arising from the fact that the event has occurred in China. He has not appeared publicly since November 28, when he appeared at a congress in Hong Kong "proud" of his supposed achievement. The New York Times he identified him weeks later on the balcony of an apartment in the residence of his university campus, a house guarded by half a dozen plainclothes agents. The official explanation is that this particular escort serves for its protection after the controversy generated, but it is not clear if it has limited freedom of movement while the investigation is being carried out.
Stanford University professor William Hurlbut said he had spoken with He several times, via email, after his disappearance from the public sphere. His Chinese colleague denied that he was being held against his will and maintained that for the time being he lives in the residence of the University "on the basis of an agreement between the two parties" (He was formally dismissed from the center in January, when published the preliminary results of the investigations). Hurlbut "did not perceive any anxiety" in the words written by He.
In China, it is common for crime suspects -especially in the case of media cases- to disappear or be subjected to house arrest even before the charges are formally imputed to them. It has happened with politicians accused of corruption or with movie stars suspected of having committed tax fraud. The media have stopped reporting the matter and even the local scientific community is reluctant to talk about it. "The authorities control him [a He Jiankui] and discussions about the case are not allowed, "says Yang Hui, a researcher at the Biological Sciences Institute in Shanghai who heads a team working with CRISPR technology. "The vast majority are against what He has done, but it is still true that the environment is somewhat rarefied. There is even a certain fear of talking openly about the case, "explains another researcher in the field, in this case from a laboratory in Beijing, who prefers that her name not be published.
The National Health Commission of China, meanwhile, is preparing a modification of the law to aggravate the punishments of those who skip the protocoles in the field of "high risk" biomedical research. Unveiled this week, the draft regulation underlines that, in the most serious cases of non-compliance, "the license of the teams and their participation in clinical research of new biomedical technologies for life will be revoked" and even includes criminal penalties. In the breakdown of these high-risk practices is, in the first section, the technology of genetic editing. "It is good that there is more supervision, especially to ensure that any investigation in this field goes through the strict examination of an ethics committee," Yang says.