OPINION: I was visiting the Chinese industrial megalopolis Shenzhen last week when the biggest scientific scandal of the year broke.
Professor He Jiankui, a relatively obscure scientist based at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, revealed that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies.
He claims to have used the powerful Crispr gene editing tool to alter the genome of embryos, which grew into twin girls, known as Lulu and Nana. They were born a few weeks ago. By removing a particular gene known as CCR5, He aimed to make the girls resistant to the HIV virus their father carried, which if left untreated, causes AIDS.
In doing so, He wanted to prove to the world that we now have the power to create babies that can be free from certain diseases. Why did he choose HIV? The geneticist told a gathering of his incredulous colleagues in Hong Kong last week that he had visited Chinese villages ravaged by AIDS.
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He says he is against designer babies, manipulated to produce higher intelligence or desirable physical characteristics. He just wants to rid the world of disease.
But the news was greeted with condemnation from the global scientific community. He’s fellow genetic scientists in China were aghast. He hasn’t published his findings in the peer-reviewed literature yet, but the consensus is that his technique is indeed possible.
“Pandora’s box has been opened,” 120 of them wrote in an open letter.
“We still might have a glimmer of hope to close it before it’s too late.”
We don’t fully understand the consequences of tinkering with human genes, which is why no country so far has allowed gene-edited embryos to develop into babies. He’s own institution seems blindsided by what’s happened. It is a staggering failure of ethical oversight.
But it is no surprise that a scientist in China has been the first to break such dubious new ground. Forty years ago, Shenzhen was a sleepy fishing town of 30,000 people. Now it is home to China’s tech giants and has a population of over 13 million.
The sprawling city symbolises China’s breakneck pace of development. Without as many regulatory hurdles and the level public scrutiny our own scientists face, China is racing ahead in the key areas of biotechnology and artificial intelligence. The scene is set for more rogue professors to emerge.
Public backlash against gene editing will make it harder to tackle our own problems, such as eradicating the mammalian pests that plague our forests and native species. He therefore deserves our contempt, not our respect.