A Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world's first genetically edited babies said at a conference on Wednesday that his actions were safe and ethical, and he asserted that he was proud of what he had done.
The idea of scientists tinkering with the genes of babies was once the provenance of science fiction, but now it's apparently entered the realm of reality: On Nov. 26, Chinese scientist He Jiankui reported the historic live births of twin girls whose genes he had edited.
The country's vice minister of science and technology, Xu Nanping, told state media outlet CCTV that the government was opposed to what He had done and said an investigation would soon be underway.
"It's shocking and unacceptable", Xu was quoted by the China Daily as saying in the interview.
If gene editing was ever allowed, many scientists have said it should be reserved to treat and prevent serious inherited disorders with no good alternatives, such as sickle cell anemia and Huntington's disease.
He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claims to have used a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-cas9, which can insert or deactivate certain genes.
The news shocked the world and aroused widespread criticism, both for its ethics, technical flaws and the necessity of such a procedure to prevent AIDS.
The reaction from the professional community of scientists and ethicists was swift and essentially universal in its condemnation, including by over 100 of He's colleagues in China. China's National Health Commission said He's activities would be investigated and any wrongdoing "resolutely dealt with", according to Xinhua.
He Jiankui, a Stanford University alumnus, now working at a laboratory in Shenzhen, made the announcement on Wednesday on the fringes of an worldwide conference in Hong Kong.
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He, however, declined to reveal the babies' identities, citing China's policy regarding privacy in cases involving HIV/AIDS.
"Even if the modifications are verified, the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform with global norms", they said in a statement. The girls' father reportedly is HIV-positive, and He said he was doing the work to help such people recover a sense of hope in life.
Chinese bioethicist Zhai Xiaomei said the informed consent He posted on his laboratory's website did not comply with the worldwide community's consensus on genome editing.
"I told him that it was irresponsible and reckless to proceed for many reasons and that he needed to discuss his plans with senior authorities in China before proceeding any further", Porteus said.
"This study has been submitted to a scientific journal for review", he said of his self-funded research, without naming the journal.
He said he chose embryo gene editing for HIV because these infections are a big problem in China.
"Gene-editing is a powerful and great technology, and you can not blame all biologists for one person's misconduct", a scientist with the Peking University told the Global Times.
However, he added, "I must apologise this result was leaked unexpectedly", He also said of the apparent breakthrough "The clinical trial was paused due to the current situation".
The organizer's of a Hong Kong Conference, where He announced his gene-editing claims, described his work on Thursday as "deeply disturbing" and "irresponsible". Couples could choose whether to use edited or unedited embryos for pregnancy attempts.