Chinese scientist He Jiankui made a bold move last week when he published a video about a successful gene editing surgery on a human baby. After appearing in Hong Kong at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, Jiankui has been reported missing. Was he arrested by Chinese authorities? Was he murdered or perhaps abducted? His whereabouts are suddenly unknown. One report says he was placed under house arrest in Shenzhen after attending the conference, but another report from the China Morning Post tells otherwise. According to the Post, his former employer, the Southern University of Science and Technology, dismissed the detention claims, declining to elaborate on his whereabouts.
How will Jiankui and his research be used in the future? Will it be banned or used for specific purposes? Are perfect “disease-free” genetically engineered babies a possibility?
Just a week ago, Jiankui publicly claimed to have successfully engineered the genome of a human baby. Now dubbed the “Chinese Frankenstein,” Jiankui is making his best pitch for the ethical use of genetic engineering on human babies. During invitro fertilization, Jiankui and a team of scientists introduced “proteins and instructions” to genetically engineer the DNA of twins so they would resist HIV infection from their father’s genome. The team of scientists used a DNA editing tool called Crispr-Cas9 to eliminate a gene called CCR5.
Jiankui claims “gene surgery” should be a tool to help heal families; however, the experiment opens up a Pandora’s Box. Will wealthy families soon be able to choose designer traits for their future children? How will human genetic engineering be regulated and enforced? Will there be a black market for genetic engineering of human babies or will the technology be embraced by future medical communities? If allowed, will altered DNA damage other genes and cause dangerous mutations that may be passed down to future generations?
Upon hearing the news, university president Chen Shiyi brought Jiankui back to Shenzhen and had a six hour meeting to discuss the controversial research. According to Apple Daily, Jiankui was allegedly put on house arrest on campus. Security personnel are allegedly on site, keeping watch. A spokeswoman for the university seemed to be hiding information when she declined to elaborate on the matter. Speaking to South China Morning Post she said, “We cannot answer any questions regarding the matter right now, but if we have any information, we will update it through our official channels.”
“Right now nobody’s information is accurate, only the official channels are,” she remarked.
Chinese health officials initially didn’t know about Jiankui’s experiments, and now he is facing an investigation from China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. The hospital used to carry out the experiment has accused Jiankui of forgery. Chinese authorities have ordered him to stop the research. Jiankui says the research should be used with discretion and only to save babies from inherited genes that would spell future disease risk.
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