Chinese scientist who gene-edited babies has gone missing
A week after Chinese scientist He Jiankui sparked outrage and fear in the scientific community by claiming that he had gene-edited babies, reports suggest that he has gone missing. While initial media reports had speculated that he had been detained at his former workplace, the reports have been refuted, and Jiankui's whereabouts now remain unknown. Here are the details.
The first gene-edited babies in the history of humanity?
In the last week of November, Jiankui had released a YouTube video wherein he claimed to have altered the DNA of twin baby girls - Lulu and Nana - who had been born a couple of weeks earlier. With gene-editing on humans banned in most countries, Jiankui's claim had sent shockwaves across the scientific community, and had earned him the nickname 'Chinese Frankenstein'.
Jiankui had addressed a scientific conference shortly afterwards
Subsequently, last Wednesday, Jiankui addressed the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, giving his first public comments since he made the claim. He said that he was "proud" of his historic feat, and the twin baby girls had been born normal and healthy. Then came another twist. Jiankui claimed that his gene-editing trials had resulted in "another potential pregnancy" of a gene-edited human.
More gene-edited babies to be born?
Over the course of his work, which involved using the CRISPR technology for gene-editing, Jiankui said that he had worked with seven Chinese couples to disable a gene called CCR5 that enabled the HIV virus to affect human cells. It's worth noting that Jiankui's work has not yet been published in any medical journal, and has neither been publicly verified.
Rumors say that Jiankui is being detained in Shenzhen, China
Since the conference, however, Jiankui mysteriously disappeared. Over the weekend, rumors that the president of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTC), Jiankui's former employer, had forced the scientist to return to Shenzhen, where was detained. However, on Monday, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that SUSTC had denied detaining Jiankui. There has been no update on Jiankui's whereabouts since then.
SUSTC's statement on the rumors about Jiankui's disappearance
"Right now nobody's information is accurate, only the official channels are. We cannot answer any questions regarding the matter right now, but if we have any information, we will update it through our official channels," a spokeswoman for SUSTC told SCMP.
It's widely believed that Jiankui will turn up eventually
Despite the mysterious circumstances surrounding Jiankui's disappearance, and SUSTC's tight-lipped response to the rumors, it's widely believed that Jiankui will turn up eventually. However, if and when he does turn up, Jiankui is slated to face an investigation by China's Ministry of Science and Technology. The results of that investigation, and actions taken, could well shape the future of human gene-editing research - punishment could serve as a disincentive, leniency could imply a nod.
A slippery slope?
That said, if Jiankui's claim is true, which it just might be, then humanity would seem to have crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed. While gene editing does have the potential to eliminate heritable diseases by eliminating problematic genes in embryos, it is considered to be extremely risky. Much of this risk pertains to the fact that wrong gene editing could lead to problematic biological coding being passed down to future generations.
Gene-editing also has strong dystopian potential
Further, apart from scientific ethics and scientific risk, genetic editing could someday give rise to a class of 'super' humans who would be immune to diseases, maybe even aging. Considering the inequality of power and wealth around the world, this could lead to a dystopian scenario wherein the rich and the powerful enhance themselves, thereby creating an unforeseen socio-political crisis.