EXCLUSIVE: Chinese scientists are creating CRISPR
A daring effort is under way to create the first children
whose DNA has been tailored using gene editing.
When Chinese researchers first edited the genes of a human embryo in
a lab dish in 2015, it sparked global outcry and pleas from scientists
not to make a baby using the technology, at least for the
It was the invention of a powerful gene-editing tool, CRISPR, which is
cheap and easy to deploy, that made the birth of humans genetically
modified in an in vitro fertilization (IVF) center a
Now, it appears it may already be happening.
According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month
here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology,
in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first
gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes
of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.
He Jiankui leads a team using the gene-editing technology CRISPR in
an effort to prevent disease in newborns.
Southern University of Science and Technology
The clinical trial documents describe a study in which CRISPR is employed
to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s
The scientist behind the effort, He Jiankui, did not reply to a list of
questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth.
Reached by telephone, he declined to comment.
However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows that genetic
tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six
months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to
term, or are ongoing.
[After this story was published, the
Associated Press reported that according to He, one couple in the
trial gave birth to twin girls this month, though the agency wasn't able
to confirm his claim independently. He also released a
video about his project.]
The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning
medical achievement, for both He and China. But it will prove
controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine that eliminates
genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer
babies, and a new form of eugenics.
The step toward genetically tailored humans was undertaken in secrecy and
with the clear ambition of a stunning medical first.
“In this ever more competitive global pursuit of applications for gene
editing, we hope to be a stand-out,” He and his team wrote in an ethics
statement they submitted last year. They predicted their innovation “will
surpass” the invention of in vitro fertilization, whose developer was
awarded a Nobel Prize in 2010.
The claim that China has already made genetically altered humans
comes just as the world’s leading experts are jetting into Hong Kong for
the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing.
The purpose of the international meeting is to help determine whether
humans should begin to genetically modify themselves, and if so, how.
That purpose now appears to have been preempted by the actions of He, an
elite biologist recruited back to China from the US as part of its
The technology is ethically charged because changes to an embryo would be
inherited by future generations and could eventually affect the entire
gene pool. “We have never done anything that will change the genes of the
human race, and we have never done anything that will have effects that
will go on through the generations,” David Baltimore, a biologist and
former president of the California Institute of Technology, who chairs
the international summit proceedings, said in a
pre-recorded message ahead of the event, which begins Tuesday,
It appears the organizers of the summit were also kept in the dark about
Regret and concern
The genetic editing of a speck-size human embryo carries significant
risks, including the risks of introducing unwanted mutations or yielding
a baby whose body is composed of some edited and some unedited cells.
Data on the Chinese trial site indicate that one of the fetuses is a
“mosaic” of cells that had been edited in different ways.
A gene-editing scientist, Fyodor Urnov, associate director of the Altius
Institute for Biomedical Sciences, a nonprofit in Seattle, reviewed the
Chinese documents and said that, while incomplete, they do show that
“this effort aims to produce a human” with altered genes.
Urnov called the undertaking cause for “regret and concern over the fact
that gene editinga powerful and useful techniquewas put to use in a
setting where it was unnecessary.” Indeed, studies are already under way
to edit the same gene in the bodies of adults with HIV. “It is a
hard-to-explain foray into human germ-line genetic engineering that may
overshadow in the mind of the public a decade of progress in gene editing
of adults and children to treat existing disease,” he says.
In a scientific presentation in 2017 at Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory, which is posted to
described a very large series of preliminary experiments on mice,
monkeys, and more than 300 human embryos. One risk of CRISPR is that it
can introduce accidental or “off target” mutations. But He claimed he
found few or no unwanted changes in the test embryos.
He is also the chairman and founder of a DNA sequencing company called
Direct Genomics. A new breed
of biotech companies could ultimately reap a windfall should the new
methods of conferring health benefits on children be widely
According to the clinical trial plan, genetic measurements would be
carried out on embryos and would continue during pregnancy to check on
the status of the fetuses. During his 2017 presentation, He acknowledged
that if the first CRISPR baby were unhealthy, it could prove a
“We should do this slow and cautious, since a single case of failure
could kill the whole field,” he said.
describing the study was posted in November, but other trial documents
are dated as early as March of 2017. That was only a month after the
National Academy of Sciences in the US
gave guarded support for gene-edited babies, although only if they
could be created safely and under strict oversight.
Currently, using a genetically engineered embryo to establish a pregnancy
would be illegal in much of Europe and prohibited in the United States.
It is also prohibited in China under a 2003 ministerial guidance to IVF
clinics. It is not clear if He got special permission or disregarded the
guidance, which may not have the force of law.
In recent weeks, He has begun an active outreach campaign, speaking
to ethics advisors, commissioning an opinion poll in China, and hiring an
American public-relations professional, Ryan Ferrell.
“My sense is that the groundwork for future self-justification is getting
laid,” says Benjamin Hurlbut, a bioethicist from Arizona State University
who will attend the Hong Kong summit.
opinion poll, which was carried out by Sun Yat-Sen University, found
wide support for gene editing among the sampled 4,700 Chinese, including
a group of respondents who were HIV positive. More than 60% favored
legalizing edited children if the objective was to treat or prevent
disease. (Polls by the
Pew Research Center have found similar levels support in the US for
He’s choice to edit the gene called CCR5 could prove controversial as
well. People without working copies of the gene are believed to be immune
or highly resistant to infection by HIV. In order to mimic the same
result in embryos, however, He’s team has been using CRISPR to mutate
otherwise normal embryos to damage the CCR5 gene.
The attempt to create children protected from HIV also falls into an
ethical gray zone between treatment and enhancement. That is because the
procedure does not appear to cure any disease or disorder in the embryo,
but instead attempts to create a health advantage, much as a vaccine
protects against chicken pox.
For the HIV study, doctors and AIDS groups recruited Chinese couples in
which the man was HIV positive. The infection has been a growing problem
So far, experts have mostly agreed that gene editing shouldn’t be used to
make “designer babies” whose physical looks or personality has been
He appeared to anticipate the concerns his study could provoke. “I
support gene editing for the treatment and prevention of disease,” He
posted in November to the social media site WeChat, “but not for
enhancement or improving I.Q., which is not beneficial to society.”
Still, removing the CCR5 gene to create HIV resistance may not present a
particularly strong reason to alter a baby’s heredity. There are easier,
less expensive ways to prevent HIV infection. Also, editing embryos
during an IVF procedure would be costly, high-tech, and likely to remain
inaccessible in many poor regions of the world where HIV is
A person who knows He said his scientific ambitions appear to be in line
with prevailing social attitudes in China, including the idea that the
larger communal good transcends individual ethics and even international
Behind the Chinese trial also lies some bold thinking about how evolution
can be shaped by science. While the natural mutation that disables CCR5
is relatively common in parts of Northern Europe, it is not found in
China. The distribution of the genetic trait around the worldin some
populations but not in othershighlights how genetic engineering might be
used to pick the most useful inventions discovered by evolution over the
eons in different locations and bring them together in tomorrow’s
Such thinking could, in the future, yield people who have only the
luckiest genes and never suffer Alzheimer’s, heart disease, or certain
The text of an academic
website that He maintains shows that he sees the technology in the
same historic, and transformative, terms. “For billions of years, life
progressed according to Darwin’s theory of evolution,” it states. More
recently, industrialization has changed the environment in radical ways
posing a “great challenge” that humanity can meet with “powerful tools to
It concludes: “By correcting the disease genes … we human[s] can better
live in the fast-changing environment.”
Note: This story was updated after publication to include claims by He
Jiankui that the trial had produced live births.
Antonio Regalado Senior Editor, Biomedicine
I am the senior editor for biomedicine for MIT Technology Review.
I look for stories about how technology is changing medicine and
biomedical research. Before joining MIT Technology Review in July
2011, I lived in São Paulo, Brazil, where I wrote about science,
technology, and politics in Latin America for Science and other
publications. From 2000 to 2009, I was the science reporter at the
Wall Street Journal and later a foreign correspondent.