Just yesterday, November 26, 2018, news made the rounds that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui and his team at Shenzhen Harmonicare Women’s and Children’s Hospital in China had edited the DNA in a pair of human embryos, disabling a gene required for HIV infection and transferred the embryos into their mother’s uterus which resulted in the birth of twin girls. If it is true, according to the Los Angeles Times, the twins would represent the world’s first genetically edited babies.
The release of the news may have been deliberately timed to coincide with the conference of scientists on the future of gene editing which opened in Hong Kong yesterday.
Gene editing or CRISPR is currently and mainly used to alter or disable parts of a cell so as to cure a disease or prevent the occurrence of a hereditary disorder in an adult cell. Scientist are worried about what the Chinese team has done because editing an adult cell restricts the risks or off-target effects to one individual. But doing so with a reproductive cell, such as an embryo, could extend the off-target effects to future generations with consequences that can not at the moment be measured or predicted.
Leading geneticists have strongly recommended that gene editing should, for now, be restricted to adult cells and animals. Consequently, the United States and many other countries, according to the New York Times, have made it illegal to deliberately alter the genes of a human embryo.
The Chinese team is yet to make available the data of their research for peer review, making some scientists to doubt their claim. But one US top geneticist claims he has seen the data and that the team’s claim may be true. However, the New York Times reports that 122 Chinese scientists have issued a statement calling “Dr He’s action “crazy” and his claims a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.” Besides, Mr. He’s work has became a subject of several investigations barely 24 hours of the breaking of the news, first exclusively by MIT Technological Review on November 25 and shortly thereafter by the international press.
In 2009 an Italian doctor Severino claimed that he had produced three kids using the same cloning technique that produced dolly the sheep in 1996. But he was pushed to provide proof considering that such practice was not legal in Italy, he declined, citing client’s privacy.
Eyes on China
Nevertheless, claims made by Chinese scientists are taken very seriously because most scientific techniques prohibited in other countries are allowed in China. Apart from the unknown consequences of reproductive cell editing scientist are generally worried that such technology could be used to breed super humans or designer-babies.
The world may condemn China for some of its practices, which are well deserved. But that is one country that is set to dominate the world of science and they are throwing everything they have into it.
Any lessons for Africa?
China was once a subject of jokes in the developed world. Not any more. Strangely, it is still a subject of jokes in Africa. Any substandard products, irrespective of their origin are derisively referred to as “chinco”. But if Africa is serious about developing, they need to learn a ton of lessons from the Chinese. But is that possible with the current weak education system? Unlikely! The best we can settle for is to ask them to come and help us out in infrastructure development. But can they help us to achieve scientific greatness. Never!