SHENZHEN, China – The Chinese government ordered an "immediate investigation" into the alleged delivery of the world's first genetically modified babies, as experts from around the world expressed outrage over the use of this technology.
The rejection comes amid claims made online by scientist He Jiankui that the twins were born with altered DNA to make them resistant to HIV, an innovative movement that could lead to enormous scientific and ethical dilemmas.
He, a professor at the University of Science and Technology of the South in Shenzhen, says that his laboratory had been editing the genetic codes of embryos for seven couples undergoing in vitro fertilization.
In a video posted on YouTube on Monday, the Chinese researcher said one of the pregnancies had been successful and that the apparently healthy twins, Lulu and Nana, had been born "a few weeks ago".
He states that he used a tool known as CRISPR-cas9, which can insert or deactivate certain genes. In his YouTube video, he describes the procedure as "having eliminated the door through which HIV enters."
But in a statement published on Tuesday morning, the National Health Commission of China said it had "immediately asked the Guangdong Provincial Health Commission to investigate and seriously verify" the claims made by He Jiankui.
The statement follows a measure by the Chinese hospital named in the ethical approval documents of He, the Women and Children's Hospital of Shenzhen Harmonicare, to deny any participation in the proceedings.
"We can guarantee that the research was not done in our hospital or the babies born here," a hospital representative told CNN. The hospital confirmed that two of the doctors named in He's documents work at the hospital and suggested that an internal investigation was under way.
The Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission denounced the legitimacy of the hospital ethics committee and the review process that approved the request. He confirmed that an investigation was launched on Monday to "verify the authenticity of the ethical review of the investigation reported by the media."
The University of the University of Science and Technology of the South said in a statement that the researcher has been on leave since February 1.
"The research work was carried out outside the school by Associate Professor He Jiankui. Did not report to the school or the biology department. The university and the department of biology do not know it, "said the institution, adding that" the Academic Committee of the Department of Biology believes that it seriously violates academic ethics and academic standards. "
His claims have not been independently verified or peer-reviewed. But if they are true, the procedure will raise significant ethical questions about gene editing and so-called designer babies.
The editing of embryo genes for pregnancy is prohibited in many counties, including the United States. In the United Kingdom, embryo editing can be allowed for research purposes with strict regulatory approval. It is unknown whether the procedure is safe or, if used during pregnancy, if it can have unintended consequences for babies later in life or for future generations.
A "big blow" for Chinese research
A joint statement issued by more than 120 Chinese scientists on the Chinese social networking site Weibo condemns research on the editing of the human genome.
"The review of medical ethics exists only in the name. "Experiencing directly in humans is nothing but madness … as soon as a living human is produced, no one could predict what kind of impact it will bring, since the modified inheritable substance will inevitably be integrated into the human genome group," they wrote. , and added that The trial is a "big blow" to the reputation of Chinese biomedical research. "It is extremely unfair for Chinese scientists who are diligent, innovative and who defend the baseline of scientific ethics."
Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Practice Ethics Center at the University of Oxford, described the supposed births as "Russian genetic roulette".
"If it's true, this experiment is monstrous," he said. "The embryos were healthy. There are no known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems at an early and later stage of life, including the development of cancer.
"There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy people: for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one contracts it, "said Savulescu.
Joyce Harper, professor of genetics and human embryology at the Institute for Women's Health at University College London, described the alleged investigation as "premature, dangerous and irresponsible," and called for public debate and legislation.
"Before this procedure comes close to clinical practice, we need years of work to show that the intrusion with the embryo's genome will not cause harm to the person in the future," he said in a statement.
Yalda Jamshidi, Senior Professor of Human Genetics at St George's, University of London, pointed out that this controversial research is not necessary to prevent HIV.
"We already have ways to prevent HIV infection and the treatments available if they occur. We also do not need gene editing to make sure it is not passed on to offspring, "he said." We know very little about long-term effects, and most people would agree that human experimentation for a condition avoidable just to improve our knowledge is morally and ethically unacceptable. "
Despite ethical concerns in the West, a recent study suggested that the Chinese public is in favor of the use of gene editing for medical purposes. An online survey conducted by Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou found that more than two-thirds of the 4,771 people surveyed (575 of whom have HIV) supported its use in the treatment of diseases, according to state tabloid Global Times.
"(The Chinese) have a high disposition to use the gene in the prevention and treatment of diseases," said Liang Chen, a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University. "This suggests that the research of gene editing in China not only has promising potential, but also responds to the needs of the public."