He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who claimed this week to have helped produce the world's first genetically altered babies, said Wednesday there was another "potential pregnancy" involved in his study as he defended a procedure that has shaken the scientific world.
The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, revealed the possible pregnancy Wednesday while making his first public comments about his controversial work at an worldwide conference in Hong Kong.
For someone who has caused a worldwide uproar over what many fellow scientists consider an ethical outrage, He Jiankui of China spent a remarkable amount of time discussing his work - which he claims led to the births of the first babies whose genomes had been edited when they were IVF embryos - with bioethicists, policy experts, and social scientists.
He Jiankui, who goes by "JK", studied at Rice and Stanford universities in the USA before returning to his homeland to open a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, where he also has two genetics companies.
Gene editing is banned in Britain, the United States many other parts of the world, and researchers said that, if Dr He's claims are true, the "monstrous" experiment was 'not morally or ethically defensible'. By contrast, the USA and many other countries have strictly restricted Crispr's use in so-called germ-line editing, which involves changes that will impact the descendants of an original patient and is the kind He claims to have performed in China.
He spoke Wednesday at a conference on gene editing in Hong Kong, the first time he's discussed his experiment in a public venue.
The announcement that broke earlier this week was that twin girls, dubbed Lulu and Nana, had been born to one of the sets of parents with the desired genetic modification. He said that eight couples were enrolled in the trial, but one dropped out.
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The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He Jiankuiholds an associate professorship, said it had been unaware of the research project and that Dr He had been on leave without pay since February.
Evoking Dolly the cloned sheep, Derrick Au Kit-sing, director of Chinese University's Center for Bioethics told the SCMP, "You can not say that you succeeded in cloning the sheep, then jump to clone human beings directly". Off-target effects could happen anywhere along this snarl of molecules, so they're hard to find.
He said Wednesday he was "against genome-editing for enhancement" and that he would conduct the experiment on his own unborn daughter if she were at risk with HIV infection. In response, The National Academies Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a neutrally worded statement about the news that nevertheless highlighted reports from last year and this year laying out ethical considerations around human genome editing. This is different to somatic (body) cell gene-editing, whereby only existing cells are targeted and the changes made are not passed on to future offspring. In such an unprecedented situation, it is unclear whether the girl with the double deletion will have any protection against HIV, or whether either girl will see any benefit or harm from the gene editing, Musunuru says. In addition to that, the removal of the gene, known as CCR5, could make the babies vulnerable to other infections such as West Nile virus, though the informed consent has no reference to this.
Tampering with genes of human embryos is outlawed in many countries.
In a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange on Tuesday, the group said preliminary investigations indicated the signatures on the application form circulated on the internet are "suspected to have been forged, and no relevant meeting of the Medical Ethics Committee of the hospital in fact took place".
Now other Chinese researchers in attendance at the conference are among the strongest critics of this work. Details on the process, the specific mutations and analysis used to screen for potentially harmful "off-target" genomic changes were also presented today. He claimed the gene-edited twin girls were born earlier this month.
"I don't think it has been a transparent process".