Years Before CRISPR Babies, This Man Was the First to Edit Human Embryos

In 2015, an unknown Chinese scientist edited the DNA of human embryos. It was a step on an inexorable path to designer babies.

Junjiu Huang of Sun Yat-Sen University says he had “no idea what the reaction would be” to his research. Photo: Xue Xun

By Antonio Regalado

It could have been anyone. It was so easy. But it was him. Junjiu Huang.

In 2015, Huang, a stem-cell researcher at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, first reported using the gene-editing tool CRISPR on human embryos. His paper was rejected by top Western journals on the grounds that it didn’t follow ethics rules and presented scant science, but that April it found its way into print in an obscure English-language publication in Beijing.

The result was, in Chinese, xuān rán dà bō (轩然大波), or “towering waves” — a sensational controversy.

Huang had only carried out a lab experiment, in which he’d tried to fix a gene error that causes a blood disease. His test subjects were abnormal IVF embryos, about the size of the period at the end of this sentence, and they were soon destroyed. No attempt was made to create a child.

Still, Huang had broken a taboo: altering the DNA of so-called germline cells, those that affect heredity. The implication was clear. Genetically edited people could one day be born. And those changes would be passed on to future generations.

The reaction to Huang’s work was instant, visceral, and global. Humankind could drive its own evolution, but the person holding the wheel was a youthful-looking biologist from southern China whom no one had ever heard of. His scientific effort was called “totally premature” and a “dreaded” experiment. The dean of Harvard Medical School ascribed to Huang potentially “deranged motivations.”

I wrote about Huang’s research in 2015, so it was with a sense of déjà vu that I watched the international reaction this November when He Jiankui, a scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, announced he’d changed the DNA of human embryos to make them HIV-resistant and implanted them into women — one of whom, He claimed, gave birth to twin girls. Once again, an ambitious Chinese scientist had crossed into unknown territory to score a controversial first. Once again, his papers were rejected and attacked by furious Western scientists.

Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images