In November 2018, a unique scientific event took place, which resulted in the birth of the first people with altered DNA. The Chinese geneticist He Jiankui was behind this project. However, after this significant achievement, the scientist mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind only a lot of questions from the world community.
How it all started
The whole story began with the appearance of a video called “About Lulu and Nana: twins born healthy after genetic surgery”, which appeared on YouTube on November 25th.
In this video, He Jiankui, dressed in a blue shirt with a smile on his face, talks about the successful birth of two girls in a bright office. These babies are the first people in history to have their genetic code changed to provide protection against HIV.
The scientist happily announces the happy parents, whom he calls Mark and Grace – their real names and other personal details remain secret. He recalls how Mark, suffering from HIV, expressed his gratitude to him for the opportunity to give birth to healthy children.
However, when it comes to the process of making changes to the genome that affect the appearance, intellectual and physical abilities of a person, He Jiankui has a serious expression on his face: he insistently emphasizes that genetic editing should be used only in cases where it is necessary to save people or prevent a serious hereditary disease.
He compares the birth of Lulu and Nana to the beginning of the era of intrauterine insemination, noting that the technology was once mistrusted, but is now widely accepted.
First and last public performance
Antonio Regalado, a correspondent for the MIT Technology Review, decided to check the authenticity of He Jiankui’s words. In the course of his investigation, he discovered applications for an experiment and a certificate of ethics commission issued by one of the leading hospitals in Shenzhen. Perhaps it was there that the birth of girls with altered DNA took place.
Within days of the publication of Regalado’s article, He Jiankui’s case has attracted increasing attention from both the public and the scientific community. The expectations of the American scientific community were focused on He’s speech at the 2nd DNA Change Summit, which was to be held in Hong Kong on November 28th.
On this day, He took the podium and again announced the birth of Lulu and Nana, but his speech was quick and incoherent, the former calm and good nature that was present in his first YouTube video was no longer noticeable. Ignoring the questions from the audience, He quickly left the stage and disappeared.
After November 28, 2018, Jiankui did not appear in public places. The founders of the event later said they condemned his experiment.
High-ranking Chinese officials also commented on the scientist’s activities, saying that the incident, which everyone is discussing, is a gross violation of Chinese laws.
Where did Jiankui go?
At the end of December, the media published an article titled “Detention of a scientist who changed human DNA.” Reporters were able to take a photo of He on the campus of Shenzhen University – the scientist was standing on the balcony.
Four men in civilian clothes guarded the entrance to the apartment where He was staying and prevented the journalists from entering. Neither the police nor any other organization answered questions about the affiliation of these guards.
University staff refused to comment on what was happening. The publication of the article shed light on the fact that He remains alive and in touch with his family – photos taken on the balcony included the scientist’s wife and their child.
On January 21, 2019, statements from officials sparked chagrin over the unethical practices of Chinese researcher He Jiankui. The statement clearly stated that Jiankui had disregarded government restrictions in his research in pursuit of personal fame and material gain.
He Jiankui was accused of creating fake certificates with which he deceived the participants in the experiment and his colleagues. The statement made it clear that he and all persons involved in the experiment would be prosecuted in accordance with the law, and those suspected of crimes would be arrested.
At the same time, it became known that Lulu and Nana, as well as another pregnant woman with DNA editing, are under continuous medical supervision.
In February 2019, there was widespread public interest in introducing a mutation into the DNA of Lulu and Nana and the work of scientists in this field. Studies conducted on mice back in 2016 showed that this mutation affects the function of the hippocampus – the area of the brain responsible for memory – and contributes to its improvement.
This question was asked by He Jiankui at the Second DNA Change Summit. Although the Chinese scientist acknowledged the existence of such studies, he noted that information on this issue remains insufficient.
Will there be more experiments like this?
The CCR5delta32 mutation has potential benefits: improved memory and learning, faster recovery from stroke or brain injury, and HIV resistance. However, this does not mean that it is safe to introduce such a mutation into the human genome without considering the long-term consequences.
The effect on genes is unpredictable. Even if there are known positive effects of a mutation, we cannot be sure that there are no undesirable or even dangerous consequences.
Genetic interference can cause unexpected changes in the body that can lead to serious illness or other problems.
The fate of He Jiankui and his edited embryos, Lulu and Nana, remains unclear. Interference with the genetic structure of embryos is a new and still understudied field.
While science continues to explore and understand genetic modification, there are many unknown factors and it is impossible to predict how genetically modified people will react to these changes over their lifetime.