The Current

U.S. scientist says he tried to stop Chinese researcher from making first gene-edited babies

How did a scientist in China pull off his experiment using gene-editing technology on embryos without anyone knowing, and what impact has he had on the ethics of CRISPR research?

Stanford scientist Michael Porteus calls He Jiankui 's CRISPR project 'arrogant and irresponsible'

Chinese scientist He Jiankui, centre, and Stanford University professor Michael Porteus, right, take part in a question and answer session after speaking at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on Nov. 28, 2018. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

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When news came out that Chinese scientist He Jiankui had developed "CRISPR babies" — twin girls who are the first humans born from gene-edited embryos — the world reacted with surprise.

But He had in fact been talking to leaders in the gene-editing field for years, giving hints that he was planning to make changes to the human genome that could be passed down to future generations.

Stanford University pediatrics professor Matthew Porteus thought he had convinced He that the unknown consequences these untested edits could have for the babies made the work unethical.

"I strongly and vehemently advised him that this was something that he should not do and he should immediately stop," Porteus told The Current'sAnna Maria Tremonti. "So then when I heard he had actually done it, I really was shocked."

Porteus called He's actions "arrogant and irresponsible."

Condemned by scientific community

He, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, sparked an international scientific and ethical row when he said he had used a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born in November.

A microplate containing embryos that have been injected with Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA is seen in a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province on Oct. 9, 2018. (Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press)

He said that the process made the girls resistant to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Robin Lovell-Badge, an organizer of the event where He made the announcement, described him as a rich man with a "huge ego" and "no basic training in biology."

The use of CRISPR to edit human genes has been condemned by UNESCO and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It's a criminal offence in Canada, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Physician William Hurlbut, who had spent hours talking to He about the ethics of gene editing, believes he's a "well-meaning person" — but added that it doesn't discount the scientific community's wide condemnations for what he's done.

Hurlbut, a neurobiology professor and researcher at Stanford University, was present at the International Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong in November when He made the announcement.

"The meaning of this is so great that it needs to be done very carefully, it needs to be approached very thoughtfully, and that had not happened," he said.

To get the backstory of how the "CRISPR babies" came to be, and why scientists are so worried about the consequences, Tremonti also spoke to STAT News senior science reporter Sharon Begley. 

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

With files from Reuters and CBC's Day 6. Produced by Karin Marley.