Scandal surrounds the birth of babies in China that have had their genomes modified in a way that may improve their intelligence. Picture: iStock
Scandal surrounds the birth of babies in China that have had their genomes modified in a way that may improve their intelligence. Picture: iStock

China’s baby editing ‘mad scientist’

SUPER soldiers. Enhanced engineers. Mega-mind scientists. It's been the stuff of science fiction for decades. But, now we have the technology …

The idea of enhancing human capabilities is well within our reach. Last year, Australia's Defence Science and Technology Group even assembled some of the country's best minds to explore human biotechnologies - or the prospect of 'building' better soldiers.

It was worried "other actors" may not be as ethical as we are. It wanted to know what kinds of human enhancements - be they drug, mechanical or biological - could plausibly be produced within the next few decades.

But Beijing may have already launched down that path.

 

'DESIGNER' BABIES

Professor He Jiankui didn't anticipate the uproar he generated shortly before his planned triumphant announcement at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing.

He thought the birth of the world's first gene-edited children would be met with ovation.

And China's institutions felt the professor as a rising star, lured back from his research in the United States with generous financial support.

But, then, The MIT Technology Review got wind of what was about to happen. It released his carefully presented YouTube videos and details of his experiments before he could take the stage.

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Qin Jinzhou, an embryologist who was part of the team working with scientist He Jiankui, adjusts a microplate containing embryos that have been modified at a lab in Shenzhen in southern China's Guandong province. Picture: AP
Qin Jinzhou, an embryologist who was part of the team working with scientist He Jiankui, adjusts a microplate containing embryos that have been modified at a lab in Shenzhen in southern China's Guandong province. Picture: AP

 

The news was met with uproar.

The idea of tinkering with the genes of human babies - without well and truly knowing what it involved and its potential consequences - was unethical in the extreme.

The technology behind gene editing, known as CRISPR-cas9, is not yet entirely understood. It may not always be as precise as needed. Not all of its side-effects have been discovered.

And here was news of twin girls, born in November, who had been experimented upon.

If anything went wrong, these individuals would have to endure it for the rest of their lives.

Just as they would benefit from anything that went right.

As the uproar flashed around the world, everyone around the Standford University trained researcher began distancing themselves from him.

His university said he'd been acting outside its boundaries.

The hospital where the children were born said it wasn't aware of his work.

And Professor He was supposed to have funded the research himself.

But, upon closer investigation, these claims don't add up.

 

 

ULTERIOR MOTIVE?

If the hospital where the gene-edited twins were born didn't know what was going on, why had it prepared a video statement applauding Professor He's work?

If the Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen was not actively involved in his research, why would an 'informed consent form' Professor He have declare it was funding his work?

But, once the story blew up, the university declared Professor He's work "seriously violated academic ethics and standards" and said it would investigate.

And then - just a day after the uproar started - gene edited babies joined Beijings long, long list of censored subjects.

Before the uproar, everything - from Professor He's perspective - seemed fine. He happily declared that his team had altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with two pregnancy resulting.

He even thought it would earn him a Nobel Award.

In his first appearance after the scandal broke, Professor He insisted he was 'proud' of his work. It was, he said, aimed at giving the Chinese people the same natural resistance to HIV infection as other races around the world have.

"We should, for millions of families with inherited disease, show compassion," he told a Hong Kong summit of his peers. "If we have this technology, we can make it available earlier. We can help earlier those people in need."

It sounded all very altruistic.

Until scientists pointed out we already have proven, safe, medical means of preventing children from contracting HIV from their fathers.

And then it was revealed the twin girls may have actually received another enhancement.

To their intelligence.

 

 

Enhanced humans or genetic machines ... The prospect of modified life was tackled by the 1982 film Blade Runner.
Enhanced humans or genetic machines ... The prospect of modified life was tackled by the 1982 film Blade Runner.

 

 

ENHANCED HUMANS

A Chinese government investigation declared Professor He had funded an unauthorised experiment himself, violating state laws in pursuit of "fame and fortune". It ruled the university consent form He had used was 'forged'.

But medical research magazine STAT says it has evidence Chinese government funding may have been behind Professor He's project.

"I don't think He Jiankui could have done it without the government encouragement to press ahead" it quotes Jing-Bao Nie, a bioethicist at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

"They want him to be the scapegoat, so everybody else can be vindicated. But this would disguise serious institutional failures."

STAT says it has seen a 14-slide presentation prepared by Professor He's research team for their triumphant announcement to the world, the consent forms, and a clinical trial registry.

Together, they detail three sources of funding: the Beijing Ministry of Science and Technology, the Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Commission, and the Southern University of Science and Technology.

Professor He's work had previously been lauded by Chinese Communist Party officials in Beijing. A new DNA-sequencing device he had developed was proudly presented on state-controlled national television just a year earlier.

So it comes as little suprise one of his PowerPoint slides lists the State Key Research Program of China's science ministry as the major source of his funding.

But Professor He may not have revealed the full nature of his work. And the gene he tinkered with does have a dual impact on both HIV immunity and intelligence. But why would a Professor research a health issue already solved by simpler, safer means?

"If the documents are correct," the STAT article concludes, "they would suggest China is supporting research that the US and other countries consider unethical, and raise doubts about the preliminary conclusion of a government investigation that He acted mostly on his own."


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