The Chinese genome doctor’s trial on genetic editing

Elijah Nichols, Reporter

The science community went up in flames on the 25th of Nov. 2018, when the news first went public over the Chinese doctor who went outside of the set legal physician parameters to alter the genomes of two twin baby embryos using CRISPR/Cas9. The Chinese investigators, from government health departments, looked into the genetic alteration experiment of two twin embryos and determined that the doctor behind the gene-editing trial was attempting to make the embryos resistant to the AIDS virus.

The Investigators determined the doctor responsible for the twin embryos gene experiment was Dr. He Jiankui, an associate professor in the Department of Biology at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China.

The analysis Jiankui performed had him recruiting couples who wanted to have children, but in order for the couple to participate in Jiankui’s experimental trial, the man had to be HIV-positive and the woman to be uninfected with any autoimmune disease or sexually transmitted disease/ infection.

The couples were recruited through a Beijing-based AIDS advocacy group called Baihualin. It was later known that the clinical experiment, under the direction of Jiankui, had not received the appropriate ethical approval from an institutional review board before it started, and it was unclear if the participants had been given all of the proper information involving the experimental trial and the associated risks, leading one to wonder if the couples truly Jiankui and his staff informed consent for the testing.

Jiankui had fabricated the ethical reviews by his colleges as well as forged papers showing his approval to the overseeing board, which is a direct violation of national guidelines and breaks numerous World Health Organization (WHO) regulations. “This behavior seriously violates ethics and the integrity of scientific research, is in serious violation of relevant national regulations and creates a pernicious influence at home and abroad,” the government health departments report on Dr. He Jiankui experiments said. Jiangsu used the genetic tool, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), to edit the targeted gene, CCR5, that codes for a protein that HIV-1 uses to enter cells and spread.

In 2018, Jianksui shook the international conference with his claim that he had helped make the world’s first gene-edited embryos, despite an absolute scientific consensus among the community saying that making any genetic changes that could be passed to future generations should not be attempted at this point and is deemed unethical.

After an intense backlash from the science community, China’s department of health called an immediate halt to Jiankui’s experimental trials and for his lab’s research to be stopped at once.

The legality of gene editing for reproductive purposes is effectively banned in the United States. And most of Europe, although there is still a large gray area that could be exploited on either side of the argument.

In China, ministerial guidelines prohibit embryo research that “violates ethical or moral principles,” but because of what Jiankui did with the embryos there is a wave to changing the laws in not only China but possibly a large area of Asia.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that his agency is assembling STEM experts to consider the health impact and ethical impact of gene editing on both how it would affect that parent and the effect editing could have on an embryo.

The group will also look at the effects of what volunteered editing, those who are born and able to consent, and where the future of gene/genome editing and reproductive gene/genome editing will lie. The Director-General also said gene editing “cannot be done without clear guidelines” and experts should “start from a clean sheet and check everything.” “We have a big part of our population who say, ‘don’t touch,’” Tedros told reporters. “We have to be very, very careful, and the working group will do that.”

With the next steps in genetic research being guided by the World Health Organization, the chance for another major violation of human rights is very scant.