Is What He Jiankui Did in Genetically Modifying Twins Really So Wrong?

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.
5 min readDec 5, 2018
Parent’s Magazine

A Chinese researcher, He Jiankui of China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, stunned and outraged the scientific world when he announced that he had genetically edited a pair of twin girls, on his own and without any official permission. He presented an account of his work at a meeting on genome editing in Hong Kong. He said twins Lulu and Nana were both born healthy and that he was proud of what he had accomplished. Another patient of his was already pregnant with a genetically edited embryo, he added. His stated goal was to help people with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Genome editing, as opposed to genetic engineering or gene therapy, involves permanently changing the DNA in all of a person’s cells. Despite new technology that makes the process more precise and easier to accomplish, scientists are extremely cautious about using it. This is largely due to the risk of unexpected consequences that could affect not only the individual whose genes are altered but his or her descendants as well, for generations to come.

If the claim is proven to be true, it would be the first time a human being had been genetically altered or “edited” using this technology. He’s statement angered and worried other researchers in the field, who criticized him as conducting an experiment on fetuses in a way that was dangerous, irresponsible, and unethical. Almost all countries including China have laws or regulations that either completely ban experiments on humans, or at least make it very difficult to perform the work.

Yet if the babies were born healthy, and free of the HIV what was so wrong about what was done? Among other problems, one of the main issues is that He didn’t address an unmet medical need. In other words, there was absolutely no reason medically to undertake this procedure, placing the fetuses and potentially their future offspring at risk.

He focused his attention on a gene called CCR5, which the HIV virus uses as a doorway for infecting human cells. To prevent the virus from being able to enter the body, several scientists have previously attempted to extract the immune cells of HIV patients, deactivate the CCR5 gene using gene-editing techniques then inject the cells back into the body.

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Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

I write about behavioral health & other topics. I’m Managing Editor (Serials, Novellas) for LVP Press. See my other articles: https://hubpages.com/@nataliefrank