Chinese Geneticist Alters Embryonic Cells


Sophie Davis, Staff Writer

Close to the end of 2018, Chinese geneticist, He Jiankui, used gene editing technology to forever alter the world of genetics. While his work proves revolutionary, it has also sparked great controversy throughout the scientific community. Human genome editing is currently a developing science which looks to cure many diseases, such as various cancers, through the use of gene splicing and manipulation.

Genes control all of the body functions, as they serve as genetic blueprints, or sets of instructions to direct body formation and functions. These formations include the creation and processing of various hormones and proteins utilized throughout the body’s systems. DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) is the building block of genes, each of which provides a specific function. DNA is coiled up to maximize storage and efficiency and found in the famous double helix structure discovered in the 1950s. Modern technology has proved valuable in the sense that we are now able to edit our DNA. With the discovery of CRISPR gene splicing technology (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) in 2012, the limits of genetic technology have become vastly unclear. CRISPR, pronounced as ‘crisper’, functions as a set of molecular scissors. These “scissors” are able to slice DNA at specific, predetermined regions. This then allows the gene to repair itself or geneticists provide alternative, healthy versions of the gene.

Jiankui used this revolutionary technology to alter the genes of two twin embryos so that they were unable to contract HIV. When Juankui spoke at the Human Genome Summit at the University of Hong Kong this past month. He stated that the girls, Nana and Lulu were “born normal and healthy” and that they would continue to be researched over the next 18 years of their lives. He also confirmed that he funded his research by himself and that the university had not been aware of it.

The reason Jiankui’s findings are so controversial: the abhorrent violation of Chinese laws and scientific ethics. While most international genetics groups support using CRISPR technology in body cells that cannot be passed to further generations (blood and skin cells), they do not approve the utilization of this technology in embryos and heritable traits. Many researchers postulate that the girls may be at a higher risk for the development of cancerous tumors, as the lifelong effects of these altered genes are unknown. As Juankui has not been completely faithful to scientific ethics, many scientists also believe that the HIV protection was not the only edit Juankui made to the girls’ genes.

The Chinese Government and the Southern University of Science and Technology have both suspended Juankui’s work as it violated both law and university ethics. As for the girls, they may spend the rest of their lives as test subjects, constantly under a microscope, serving as a model for the scientific community.