The condemnation of the Chinese scientist who created the world’s first genome-edited babies last year was far from universal: A fertility clinic in Dubai emailed He Jiankui on December 5 — just a week after he announced the births — asking if he could teach its clinicians “CRISPR gene editing for Embryology Lab Application.”
Although the English is somewhat tortured, the meaning was clear, Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University, who has advised He on the bioethics of his work for several years, told STAT: The fertility center was interested in offering CRISPR embryo editing to its patients. Its opening line is, “Congratulations on your recent achievement of the first gene editing baby delivered by your application!”
Hurlbut planned to reveal the email at a panel of the World Science Festival in New York City on Tuesday evening, but shared it with STAT before the event. Hurlbut said He received “other inquiries” making a similar request. When He asked Hurlbut for advice on how to respond, Hurlbut said, “I told him not to reply.”
Hurlbut decided to publicize the inquiries now, he told STAT, to underline the need for a global governance system for embryo editing. “There is a real risk of the commercialization of this,” he said. “There probably are fertility clinics eager to offer these services and people naive enough to want them.”
The Dubai Health Authority, which runs the fertility clinic that emailed He, did not immediately reply to a request outside of business hours for information on the legality of embryo editing in the country.
The Chinese scientist also consulted Hurlbut before he created the “CRISPR babies” pregnancies, but without telling Hurlbut what he planned to do, according to the Stanford bioethicist. The two have stayed in frequent contact since He was fired by Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen for his reportedly unauthorized work, and since Chinese authorities condemned the experiment, confining He to a university housing complex.
The requests from fertility clinics for how-to help with CRISPR editing of embryos stand in stark contrast to the public reactions to He’s experiment. Even before the International Summit on Human Genome Editing, where He described the experiment that created the twin girls he called Nana and Lulu, fellow scientists, ethicists, physicians, bioethicists, regulators, and others called it reckless, dangerous, and self-serving.
At the summit last November, he was grilled intensely on stage by two genetics experts, who condemned his experiment. Since then, the World Health Organization and several national science academies have begun developing ways to regulate embryo editing, including by calling for a moratorium on it.