Gene edited babies – is it ethical?

The scientific community around the world is debating the ethics of gene editing after it was revealed a Chinese biophysicist had created the first human genetically edited babies.

Associate Professor He Jiankui from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen claimed he created the world’s first gene edited babies – twin girls called Lulu and Nana.

For his experiment, He recruited a number of couples wanting children through IVF where the husband had been infected with HIV which was being treated with anti-viral medication.

ScienceMag reported that the IVF procedure used a process called sperm washing to remove the virus before insemination.

One of He Jiankui’s colleagues works with a human embryo. Credit: MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AP PHOTO

Associate Professor He used a gene editing tool called CRISPR, to alter the gene, meaning the baby would be born without the HIV infection and could carry immunity to it.

But there were major concerns around the world with many ethicists claiming the editing of human embryos, eggs or sperm crosses an ethical red line because it could ultimately alter our species.

Associate Professor He Jiankui

The fallout was swift.

Associate Professor He was suspended by the University with the Chinese Government saying he had forged documents, “dodged supervision,” and misrepresented blood tests.

 The Health Commission of China in Guangdong Province released a preliminary report earlier this year stating that He Jiankui had defied government bans and conducted the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain. 

The condemnation from the scientific community was almost universal with many claiming the work was highly irresponsible and monstrous and the medical need was highly unconvincing.

While the majority criticised the work, some in the scientific community defended some of the research, saying gene editing for HIV resistance was justifiable since HIV is a major and growing public health threat.

Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at the New York University School of Medicine, said that engineering human genes is inevitable and, although there are concerns of creating “designer babies“, medical researchers are more interested in using the technology to prevent and treat diseases.

Associate Professor He is currently living in an apartment at the University, but with guards outside his door.

Officials from the investigation said that He, along with others would be punished along with others who are suspected of committing crimes.