He is on the faculty of Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen China, but in a statement released in response to He's videos, the university said he is on unpaid leave from February 2018 to January 2021; officials did not provide a reason for the leave.
The issue of editing human DNA is highly controversial, and only allowed in the USA in laboratory research - although United States scientists said past year that they had successfully edited the genetic code of piglets to remove dormant viral infections.
Gene editing on humans is banned in the U.S., notes the report, because modifying genes and making changes in the DNA could possibly move from one generation to the next and there is an ever-present threat to the health of other genes as well. However, he claimed that this edit was in an "intergenic" region of the genome - a stretch of DNA that doesn't code for any proteins.
Upon questioning, He even dropped this bombshell: "There is another one, another potential pregnancy", suggesting that there could be a second pregnancy with gene-edited babies. The genes of the twin girls born this month, He claims, have been altered to make them HIV-resistant.
"Right after sending her husband's sperm into her egg, an embryologist also sent in CRISPR/Cas9 protein and instructions to perform a gene surgery meant to protect the girls from future HIV infection", he said.
It is said that many mainstream scientists feel like gene-editing humans are too unsafe to try, and others are said to have denounced this Chinese research as it being akin to human experimentation. "Moreover, if you can genetically engineer humans with traits that make them smarter, you can do the same to make them more docile", he said.
"It is a great blow to the global reputation and development of biomedical research in China", said the statement posted on social media platform Weibo. His team targeted a specific gene, CCR5, which plays a role in HIV's spread to healthy cells.
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The work is highly controversial because the changes can be inherited and could go on to harm other genes, and is banned in many countries. China outlaws human cloning but not specifically gene editing.
He made this sensational (in all senses) claim at a press conference in Hong Kong on 26th November, adding that "society will decide what to do next".
Jiankui He. Credit: SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY.
Julian Savulescu, an expert in ethics at the University of Oxford, told the BBC, "If true, this experiment is monstrous".
Scientists reportedly used CRISPR to edit the infants' DNA so that they would not be affected by HIV infection. These two babies would appear to be the first gene-edited babies.
Rice University has also opened an investigation into Michael Deem (a bioengineering professor at Rice and previous supervisor of He) and his possible role in the study.
Dr. Kiran Musunuru at the University of Pennsylvania called it "unconscionable.an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible". "We only found out about it after it happened, and after the children were born", Baltimore said. The CCR5 gene, for example, affects the functioning of white blood cells and a person's vulnerability to the West Nile virus. However, eradicating diseases at the source is certainly a noble mission and I for one, would love to see He's research propagated and taken up by others.