The Chinese scientist who claimed he helped create a pair of genetically modified twin girls with HIV resistance may have more babies on the way.
He has another "potential pregnancy" at a conference on human genome editing held at the University of Hong Kong, where he has an auditorium full of scientists, who has been educated at Stanford University and Rice University, published today (Nov. 28) Reporters, and photographers-whose cameras were so loud that they somehow drowned his voice-grilled the scientist three days after his controversial claims first came to light.
On Sunday (Nov. 25), the MIT Technology Review and Associated Press both reported that He's experiments resulted in the birth of twin girls named Lulu and Nana. Of the seven couples taking part in his trials, the men are all HIV-positive while the women are not. The couples undergo in-vitro fertilization, in which a sperm is injected into an egg in a petri dish, and then after a few days a living embryo is planted in the mother's womb. In this case, however, there was a small tweak. After the egg was fertilized, He's team injected Crispr-Cas9, a genetic tool that can precisely target and cut a specific gene among 20,000 human genes.
He claims have not yet been verified independently. His employer, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said in a statement (link in Chinese) that He's research was conducted without his knowledge. China's National Health Commission has ordered an investigation to verify He's claims, while more than 100 Chinese scientists have condemned He's claims as "crazy" in a co-signed letter. Rice University also said it's opening an investigation into one of its researchers who said he had cooperated with He.
At the conference, He gave a PowerPoint presentation explaining the science behind his experiment, but not before he apologized that the results of the experiment had "leaked unexpectedly" -a claiming many were puzzling given that he had made media interviews and recorded videos of himself on YouTube ahead of time, with the timing of those media reports coming just days before the conference opened yesterday. He also acknowledged that the study had not been peer reviewed and that his university did not know about it.
He then fielded many questions from reporter and his peers, most of whom said they were deeply concerned with the ethics and procedures of his experiment and pressed him for more details on everything from funding to the informed consent process to the wellbeing of the children- to which He offered mostly vague, evasive answers. One attendee asked He if there were other genetically edited pregnancies as part of his clinical trials, to which He said there was "another potential pregnancy."
The Chinese scientist defended his experiment and said he was "proud" of his achievements, and rejected arguments that resistance to HIV infection was a unsound reason to genetically edit embryos. David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from the California Institute of Technology and chair of the conference, for example, said in a strongly worded speech that he did not think He's experiment was "medically necessary," and instead called it "irresponsible."
He opened his presentation with a slide explaining how HIV was still a serious problem in China, with infections increasing even as worldwide rates have fallen since 2000. He later said that his experience with people from China's "AIDS villages" -where some parents gave Their children to other family members to raise the risk of infection helped him decide that it was a worthwhile reason to embark on the study.
Many had questions about the transparency of the study, and to what extent the seven sets of parents who took part in the study had full knowledge of what they were doing. His answers were short on details, explaining that he had "consulted" scientists in the US and Asia about the clinical trials, but he did not answer directly why he had kept his trial secret from the Chinese authorities. When pressed to clarify the process of informed consent, he said that the parents-who were contacted through AIDS support groups-were "very well educated," but left a question asking whether his colleagues conducting the trials were trained in taking consent. He adds that the informed consent form was uploaded online for public viewing.
He also did not answer questions about where funding for his trials came from, but said his private companies were not involved. He said some of the sequencing costs were covered by the university, and he paid for the medical care and expenses of the participants.
Above all, it seemed to be the question of the welfare of the twin girls to draw the strongest reactions from the crowd. He reassured the audience that he would monitor them for the next 18 years, but did not respond directly to a question about whether their modified genotype would affect their upbringing. He also referred to an article published on Nov. 26 in the Crispr Journal, co-authored, entitled "Draft Ethical Principles for Therapeutic Assisted Reproductive Technologies," and as further proof of his beliefs and confidence in his experiment, ended his talk by saying that if the embryo would be his baby , he would also undergo the experiment.