A recent story emerged at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong about an experiment in off-target gene editing of two human embryos in an attempt to render the resultant twin babies resistant to HIV infection. The father is HIV positive whist the mother is negative. This experiment attracted severe criticism for being illegal, reckless and lack of moral and ethical considerations by worldwide researchers, Chinese medical science researches and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology. The Chinese reaction should be applauded.
Researcher He Jiankui became the eye of the storm in the global scientific community when he appeared at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in November 2018 (Hong Kong) and claimed that he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies by having the DNA of a pair of twins altered as embryos to prevent them from being infected by the HIV virus.
He defended his work as bringing hope to families with deadly inherited diseases and admitted that he has not subjected the research to peer review. His claim however, has left the world in alarm, shock and furore.
In the experiment, the volunteering coupled was told about the potential off-target site and selected to start two embryo pregnancy. The husband is HIV positive whilst the wife is negative. Twin baby girl, were born a few weeks ago and the claim was that the babies were resistant to HIV infection as a result of the altered or edited genes. The researcher also claimed that there no off-target site was observed genome-wide after birth and a plan to continue monitoring the babies for 18 years and further with their consent.
On the surface, one would have thought that this result would be a “Nobel Prize” achievement considering the possibility of preventing or eliminating the diseases before the baby is born. In the future, one can order a set diseases proof embryo.
In reality this experiment only produced an anecdotal results without proper protocol required by moral and ethical medical science research including peer review. It also claimed that the babies were HIV resistant without long term monitoring data.
This experiment could be in breach of the Helsinki Protocol the guideline provided by the World Medical Association: Declaration of Helsinki Ethical Principles for Medical Research involving Human Subjects.
This experiment is controversial and generated tremendous criticism from medical researchers globally and including Chinese medical researchers and the Chinese government.
Professor Wang Haoyi from the State Key Lab of Stem Cell and Reproductive Biology, Institute of Zoology from the Chinese Academy of Science, and his colleagues felt offended by He and gave a highly critical view of the matter to CGTN. He added that Reseacher “He doesn’t represent us, I wouldn’t even call him a scientist. He is a ruthless person who knows very little about science and did a very irresponsible experiment on human beings.”
Professor Zhang Hongbing, a professor of Physiology at Peking Union Medical College and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences gave a more robust criticism of the experiment.
Prof Zhang said that Chinese law prohibits genetic editing of human embryos for medical practice. This experiment lacked transparency and supervision and violated Chinese law and regulation, as well as academic ethics and norms.
Prof Zhang added: “Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) uses CCR5 as co-receptors to enter target cells. CCR5 deficient cells are therefore resistant to HIV infection. This alleged research on embryos is premature, dangerous and irresponsible. It is questionable whether this procedure was necessary or even safe.
The experiment is not medically justified as well. The risks of editing embryos to disable CCR5 seem to outweigh the benefits of resistance to HIV infection. Knocking out CCR5 will likely render a person much more susceptible to the West Nile Virus and other diseases.”
The China’s Ministry of Science and Technology considered the experiment unlawful under Chinese law and they have sent an investigating team to the hospital where the two babes were born.
Chinese critics, according to CGTN, include some 140 HIV researchers in China have made a statement objecting to He’s experiment and over 120 Chinese scientist have signed a condemnation letter. Research institutions connected to this Rice and Stanford-educated scientist swiftly distanced themselves from him.
The critics have said that it would remain a mystery whether the results of this experiment can stand up to the passage of time or whether the baby girls will be HIV resistant for life; and warned that infecting the girls with HIV to prove resistance is a crime.
The Chinese moral and ethical response is a welcomed action and should put to rest unsubstantiated criticism of Chinese non-compliance to moral/ethical issues of human organ transplantation so often spun in the western media.
Experiments without proper moral/ethical protocols tends to invite adverse criticism and rightly so. Taking short cuts and bypassing conventional wisdom can put mankind at risk despite good intentions.
The unintended consequences of gene alteration and associated viral genome experiments in general and without cautious, painstaking and repetitive research could unleash a “Frankstein” monster of a virus that can wipe large part of the world’s population. Religiously speaking, one is playing with God’s creation and tinkering with it in ignorance!
Hence, all human actions should comply with a moral ethical code whether it is politics or biological research.
Dr Anthony Pun – writing this article as a former Molecular Biologists and Medical Science Researcher.