Chinese scientist claims to have made 'world's first genetically edited babies' but hospital denies involvement
A hospital in China has had to deny all involvement in the alleged delivery of the first genetically-edited baby, after one scientist claimed that he was responsible for this ground-breaking technological advancement.
He Jiankui, a professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claimed that twin girls had been born with their DNA altered to make them resistant to HIV. The twins, Lulu and Nana, were supposedly born "a few weeks ago."
The controversial claims have left experts worldwide concerned over the ethics of conducting such an experiment.
Jiankui claimed that his lab has been editing the genetic codes of embryos for seven couples undergoing IVF treatments, and claimed in a YouTube video posted on Monday that one of the pregnancies was successful.
He claims they used a tool called CRISPR-cas9, which can be used to insert or deactivate certain genes, making sure that they "removed the doorway through which HIV enters".
Shenzhen Harmonicare Women's and Children's Hospital was the hospital named in his ethical approval documents, but they have denied all involvement. "We can ensure that the research wasn't conducted in our hospital nor were the babies born here," a hospital spokesperson told CNN. They did confirm that two doctors named in his documents work at the hospital, however, and stated that an internal investigation had begun.
The Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission denounced the legitimacy of the hospital ethics committee and the review process that approved the application, as well as launching their own investigation to "verify the authenticity of the ethical review of the research reported by media".
Southern University of Science and Technology, said in a statement that the researcher has been on leave since February 1 this year, and also denied connection with this research:
"The research work was carried out outside the school by Associate Professor He Jiankui. He did not report to the school or the department of biology. The university and the biology department are not aware of it. The Academic Committee of the Department of Biology believes that it seriously violates academic ethics and academic norms."
None of the announced work has been verified as of yet, but experts in the field have raised concerns over the ethics - which could lead to so-called 'designer babies'. This kind of research is banned in many counties, including the US, while in the UK editing of embryos is permitted for research purposes with strict regulatory approval.
A joint statement has since been released by over than 120 scientists on the Chinese social media site Wiebo, condemning the research:
"The medical ethics review exists in the name only. Directly experimenting on human is nothing but crazy... as soon as a living human is produced, no one could predict what kind of impact it will bring, as the modified inheritable substance will inevitably blend into human genome pool."
"It's extremely unfair to Chinese scientist who are diligent, innovative and defending the bottom line of scientific ethics."
Julian Savulescu, the director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, described the procedure "genetic Russian Roulette," due to the unknown consequences.
"Before this procedure comes anywhere near clinical practice, we need years of work to show that meddling with the genome of the embryo is not going to cause harm to the future person," Joyce Harper, a professor in genetics and human embryology, said in a statement.