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In November last year, during an experiment in China by scientist He Jiangkui, children were born with edited DNA. Soon the geneticist went missing. At Esquire's request, Science Editor for Laba. Media Vladimir Gubailovsky tells He's story and explains what the consequences of his work will be.
November 25, 2018. Hong Kong
Around 7:00 pm, a Chinese scientist publishes About Lulu and Nana: Twin Girls Born Healthy after Gene Surgery on YouTube. In the shot, He is sitting in a well-lit office, wearing a blue shirt, neatly cropped hair and smiling benevolently.
“Two beautiful Chinese babies, Lulu and Nana, came into this world as healthy as other children,” he says. These girls are the first humans ever to have edited DNA. They developed from an embryo into which a mutation was introduced that guarantees immunity from HIV.
He is happy for his parents, whom he calls by their first names - Mark and Grace. These are aliases. Their real names, as well as any information about them, are classified. The scientist breaks into a smile, remembering how HIV-infected Mark thanked him for giving birth to healthy children. He's face turns serious when he speaks out strongly against creating "designer" children - a term that implies making improvements to the DNA that affect the appearance, mental and physical characteristics of a person. "Editing is permissible only when it is necessary to save human life, to protect against a serious hereditary disease," he emphasizes.
He compares the birth of Lulu and Nana to the discovery of in vitro fertilization. "In the 1960s, technology was greeted with harsh criticism, and today it is common practice."
He is calm. He smiles. The video message was recorded in English, albeit with Chinese subtitles. YouTube is not available in China. This video is an appeal to the Western world. And the world heard him.
The same day. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
The columnist for the scientific journal MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado, watched the video of a Chinese scientist and is trying to establish its reliability. The journalist finds He's applications for the experiment and the number of the Ethics Control Certificate issued by a major hospital in Shenzhen - apparently the same one that gave birth to the girls with the edited DNA.
Regalado publishes the article, it gets more views than He's video at the time. The American scientific community is agitated. Scientists await He speaking at the Second Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong on November 28.
November 26. Hong Kong
He arrives at the hotel for the summit participants and meets with Jennifer Dudna, an American researcher and co-author of DNA editing technology. They are discussing an upcoming speech by a Chinese scientist. He was supposed to present his work on editing the embryos of mice and monkeys - but it turned out that he went much further. As Dudna later told reporters: "He was both arrogant and naive."
On the evening of November 26, Dudna persuades He to meet with other geneticists. Scientists ask a number of questions: "How many embryonic cells were edited?", "How was the mutation checked?" He didn't answer almost any. At some point, he just left the room, packed his things and left the hotel.
On the same day, He gave an interview to The Associated Press - and the news of the birth of twins with edited DNA spread on the front pages of the world's leading media.The New York Times comes out with great material: "He's experiment opens the door to the birth of 'designer' children." In the same issue - an appeal signed by 122 Chinese scientists, where they call their colleague "crazy", and his experiment - "a terrible blow to the reputation of Chinese science." He has a little more than a day left before He's performance.
November 28. Hong Kong. Second Human Genome Editing Summit
He rises to the podium and announces the birth of Lulu and Nana. He speaks quickly and inconsistently, from the benevolence and calmness seen in the first video on YouTube, not a trace remains. He ignores questions from the audience, quickly descends from the stage - and disappears.
Soon the organizing committee of the summit will publish a statement in which it strongly condemns He's experiment. Xu Nanping, Deputy Minister of Science and Technology of China, is actually reading the verdict to the scientist: "The incident with genetically modified babies, which is reported by the media, grossly violates the laws of China." Journalists surround Jennifer Dudna. To the question: "Shouldn't we introduce a moratorium on editing human embryos?" she replies, "It's too late."
The host of the popular BBC HARDtalk show Steven Sakur invites famous geneticist Robert Plomin to the studio. He just published the instant bestseller Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are.
Based on almost 30 years of research, Plomin concludes that genetic inheritance determines almost 50% of a person's personal and mental abilities. The other 50% are formed by the conditions of the external environment, upbringing and education.
“If a child has a weak memory, it is likely that it will remain weak, no matter how hard teachers and parents fight,” the scientist throws up his hands. “He won't grow up to be the best mathematician in the world. And if genes matter so much in human life, then genomic editing - at least in the long run - is inevitable. And not only in the case of hereditary diseases. Do you want your child to grow up smart? Doesn't someone want to?"
For a month now, nothing has been known about He's whereabouts. The world press is studying his biography.
The future scientist was born in 1984 in the small province of Hunan in southeastern China. Parents are farmers, growing rice all their lives. He successfully graduated from school, was fond of physics, even built a home laboratory. He went on to study the subject at the Hefei University of Science and Technology and then at the American Rice University in Houston.
Classmates recall that He was a sociable and active student - he especially liked the well-groomed football fields at an American university. But the future scientist was noticeable not only in football - his university leader, bioengineer Michael Diem, noted the brilliant successes of the ward in science. He conducted experiments on living cells and organisms, and after graduating from Rice University in 2011, he was invited to Stanford.
The experiments led by Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Feng Zhang and other outstanding geneticists and which led to the discovery of DNA editing technology were less than two years away. Many of these experiments were carried out at Berkeley, an hour's drive from Stanford.
In 2012, the Chinese authorities offered the brilliant young specialist He to return to his homeland as part of the Thousand Talents program to support young scientists. He agreed, received a grant of one million yuan, and began teaching at Shenzhen University, becoming its youngest associate professor at the age of 28. But he soon realized that he was missing the most interesting and the main discoveries were made without him.
In subsequent years, He came to America more than once and met with geneticists. In 2017, he presented his first work on editing mouse and monkey embryos. He spoke more than once about the possible editing of the human genome, but his speeches and works did not make much of an impression on his colleagues. The nickname "Shooting Star" was stuck for the scientist.
He increasingly talked about editing DNA - not mice or monkeys, but humans. Such experiments are carried out on embryonic cells, which are then destroyed within three to five days. But the Chinese scientist asked his colleagues questions: "Why not go further?", "Why not let the edited cell develop, not let the" improved "person be born?" As noted later in interviews by American scientists - both geneticists and experts on the problems of ethics of science - they thought that He was talking hypothetically - about the distant future. It turned out they were wrong.
He began preparing for his experiment. He selected a group of several married couples in which the man was HIV-positive and the woman was healthy. The scientist suggested that they edit the embryo so that not just a healthy child would develop from it, but with guaranteed protection from HIV for all their offspring. And in the spring the experiment was set up.
In five pairs, women could not get pregnant after IVF, one pair withdrew from the experiment, and nothing is known about another. And only one woman - Grace - gave birth. This is how Lulu and Nana appeared.
December 28, 2018
The New York Times publishes an article titled "Chinese Scientist Who Edited Human DNA Being Detained." The newspaper reporters managed to capture He on the balcony of the third floor of the university campus in Shenzhen. The balcony was fenced off with a metal mesh, and the scientist himself was identified in the photographs by one of his former employees.
The doors to the apartment where the scientist were were were guarded by four people in civilian clothes. When the journalists tried to enter, they were stopped and asked - why did they think that He was here? They failed to get inside. The New York Times was unable to find out who the plainclothes people were - whether they were related to the city police or another organization. University staff refused to comment on the situation around the scientist and genetically edited people.
After this publication, it became clear that He is alive and can communicate with his family - on the same balcony, journalists filmed the scientist's wife and their child.
January 21, 2019
China's Xinhua News Agency publishes the official commentary from a government official in Guangdong Province, where Shenzhen University is located. "Chinese researcher He Jiangkui defied government bans and conducted research for personal fame and benefit."
The scientist was accused of forging the certificate of ethical control, which he presented to the participants in the experiment and his employees, thereby misleading them. “He and other employees and organizations associated with the experiment will be punished in accordance with the law. Those suspected of committing crimes will be arrested. " Lulu and Nana, as well as another woman carrying a child with the edited DNA, are under constant medical supervision, the official statement said.
After Lulu and Nana were born, the CCR5delta32 mutation He introduced into their DNA attracted public attention. Back in 2016, in experiments on mice, scientists discovered that this mutation affects the functioning of the hippocampus, significantly improving memory. At the Second Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong, scientists asked He if he knew about the effects of CCR5delta32 on the brain? The Chinese scientist replied that he was familiar with the study, but there was not enough data.
Carriers of the CCR5delta32 mutation have a better chance of recovering from a stroke than ordinary people. CCR5 is the first gene for which we can confidently say that its change affects the functioning of the brain.
Today, this mutation is a set of solid advantages: it gives immunity to HIV, improves memory and learning ability, and helps to recover faster after a stroke or traumatic brain injury. The only known disadvantage at the moment is a decrease in the body's resistance to West Nile fever, but this disease is quite rare.The only problem is that no geneticist can confirm that an artificially created mutation does not carry any other risks and does not provoke unpredictable changes in the human body.
In March, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier and 16 other geneticists called for a worldwide five-year moratorium on the use of genetic editing of human embryos to produce modified humans. Scientists will seek support from a number of countries for the moratorium.
Meanwhile, under the video "Lulu and Nana: Twins were born healthy after gene surgery" more than 2,500 comments. "The trailer for the sequel to Gattaca looks great," writes one commentator (Gattaca is a 1997 dystopian film about a genetically modified society). “I'm delighted, but I'm so scared,” writes another. “You just opened Pandora's Box,” writes a third.
About the further fate of the scientist He Jiangkui, as well as about how the lives of Mark and Grace developed, nothing is known - and it is unlikely that the world will learn something new in the near future. Somewhere in China, under the supervision of doctors and scientists, Lulu and Nana are growing - the first children in history to be born from human-edited embryos. And there is no way to predict how their body will react to the intervention of geneticists.