KUALA LUMPUR, April 19 — Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who shocked the world by creating the first genetically modified babies, was listed on TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2019.
Jennifer Doudna — a co-inventor of CRISPR-Cas9, the gene editing tool that He had used to delete the CCR5 gene in twin girls Lulu and Nana — wrote in her profile for He that the scientist had broken consensus in the scientific community that the technology was still too experimental and dangerous to use on human embryos.
“His reckless experimentation on the girls in China not only shattered scientific, medical and ethical norms, it was also medically unnecessary: while the girls’ father is HIV-positive, it’s rare for fathers to pass on the virus to their children, and if they do, potent drugs can now control the infection,” Doudna wrote.
Media reports said He claimed he had wanted to protect the children from HIV by deleting the CCR5 gene that enables the AIDS-causing virus to enter immune system cells.
“Since 2012, when CRISPR-Cas9 transformed research, scientists have purposely taken a cautious and deliberate approach, focusing on how to safely apply genome editing to cure genetic diseases, fight cancer, accelerate drug development, create transplant organs and develop more nutritious crops. Its potential to improve our lives is enormous. But its potential to harm, with unintended side effects, is still unknown,” Doudna said.
The University of California professor accused He of ignoring the “do no harm” medical philosophy by risking unintended consequences, saying this incident would “likely be remembered as one of the most shocking misapplications of any scientific tool in our history”.