It is a highly controversial claim: According to Chinese scientist He Jiankui, the world’s first genetically modified babies were born in China. „Two beautiful little Chinese girls named Lulu and Nana were born crying and as healthy as any other baby a few weeks ago,“ He said in a video distributed on Youtube.
Thus, the intervention on embryos with the still very young Crispr / Cas9 method had the goal to make the children resistant to HIV. There is no certified scientific publication on the procedure, just an entry in a Chinese registry for clinical trials. There was also no confirmation from other sources.
„For the science a super-GAU“
In Germany, the United States and many other countries such manipulations of human genetic material are prohibited because the risks are so far hardly assessable and changes are passed on to future generations.
There seems to be less ethical concerns in China. „The research does not seem to be uncovered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences,“ said Peter Dabrock, chairman of the German Ethics Council. „It is reasonable to assume that this is also about demonstrating the leadership of the Chinese in the field of life science.“
„If it turns out that a Crispr gene manipulated baby has been generated, this would be a super-GAU for science,“ said Dabrock. „Just the day before the global scientific summit in Hong Kong, which advises on the responsible handling of ‚genome editing‘ in humans, such an experiment is known, can almost only be regarded as an affront to the request of responsible science.“
The men had HIV, the women did not
According to the entry in a Chinese registry, the Chinese team unintentionally got the childless to join in the experiments. The men were all infected with HIV, women were not. Artificial insemination was used to create numerous embryos whose genetic material was altered.
The researchers around He probably aimed at the gene for the so-called CCR5 receptor, attached to the HI virus for infection of the cell. People without functional CCR5 protein are not infected with the virus.
Genetic modification was not about avoiding the low risk of transmitting the virus, He said. The HIV infections of the fathers had been severely contained with normal HIV drugs. Instead, He was probably interested in allowing couples with HIV infections to have a baby who could be protected from a similar fate.
„Families need this technique“
He is aware that his work will trigger discussions, He explains in his video message. „But I think families need this technique.“ He also does not care about creating children whose IQ can be increased and whose hair and eye color can be selected, he claimed. Genetic modification should remain „an instrument of healing“: „Parents do not want a designer baby, just one that is not affected by disease.“
However, He holds several patents on techniques for altering genetic material, so financial interests should at least be part of his motivation. According to Chinese state media, he also owns a company for genetic testing equipment.
„Violated academic ethics“
He studied at Rice and Stanford Universities in the United States before returning to China to become head of a laboratory at the Southern University of Science in Shenzhen. The university rejected any knowledge of its experiments.
„We are deeply shocked,“ it said in a statement. The research was carried out outside the university. He also did not teach the university about his work. The researcher had „seriously violated academic ethics and academic norms“. A panel was instructed to conduct a thorough investigation of the case.