The Chinese biologist who altered the genes of human embryos in an ethically flawed experiment that led to the birth of twin girls reportedly immune to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was grilled by his peers and media at a seminar in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
He Jiankui, an associate professor at the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology, apologized to his peers for the controversy as he spoke at the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong.
He quickly moved to defend what he did with the twin girls. “I feel proud,” He told a packed auditorium at the University of Hong Kong, whose skeptical listeners included scores of reporters as well as David Baltimore, chairman of the summit’s organizing committee and the 1975 Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine.
He, a PhD graduate from Rice University in Houston who also conducted postdoctoral research at Stanford, stressed that the twins’ parents had given their full consent and his work would be needed to stem the spread of HIV and AIDS.
He even revealed that another woman participant could be pregnant with a third gene-edited baby.
Baltimore criticized the scientist for shrugging off a broad social consensus on the matter, even before the health risks could be fully understood and studied.
“We invited people on the basis of their publication record and their status on the field. But we didn’t ask them to tell us ahead of time what they are going to talk about,” said Baltimore, who added that there was no moratorium on gene-altering, but there were some guidelines published by the US National Academy of Sciences.
The Chinese biologist claimed he had helped alter the genes of the twin girls to increase their resistance to HIV from their infected father, while their mother was free of the disease. He added that his experiment gave hope to the couple to have healthy children.
“The man thought he lost hope for his life [after being infected with HIV]. But when the healthy babies were born and with protection [against HIV], he sent me a message on the day of their birth to say he would work hard to earn money and take care of his two daughters,” He recounted in his speech.
But critics warned that altering genes could leave the girls susceptible to influenza and West Nile fever, with the danger of gene mutation resulting in more severe complications as well as the artificial changes passing on to future generations of the twins hard to be ruled out.
He told reporters that his team would follow up on the development and health conditions of the twins for at least 18 years and he had conducted numerous experiments using ape embryos before altering the genes of the twin girls.
He also said he had halted his clinical trials for the time being because of the uproar, but the 34-year-old scientist added that he would consider altering the genes of his future children.
On Tuesday, the Beijing News reported that He’s team had been conducting experiments involving 400 human embryos with funding from the Southern University of Science and Technology. He was reportedly lured to Shenzhen with generous allowances and benefits from the local authorities.
A copy of the contract the newspaper obtained showed that each couple who agreed to participate would be awarded 280,000 yuan (about US$40,000), provided they relinquished their right to demand compensation if infected with HIV during the experiment.
An investigation ordered by China’s National Health Commission is now under way, while some observers have been pushing the Chinese authorities to arrest He.