Published: Thu, November 29, 2018
Medicine | By Brett Sutton

United States doctor warns against backlash over claim of gene-edited babies

United States doctor warns against backlash over claim of gene-edited babies

The researcher, He Jiankui (HEH JEE-ahn-qway) of Shenzhen, revealed the possible pregnancy Wednesday while making his first public comments about his controversial work at an global conference in Hong Kong.

Earlier, He stunned the scientists just as they were gathering for the historic meeting with his claim, which he outlined in a series of YouTube videos, bypassing scientific norms of first subjecting his experiment to scientific scrutiny by other scientists.

But he apologised that his research "was leaked unexpectedly".

Prof He also said that the study had been submitted to a scientific journal for review, though he did not name the journal.

Associate Professor He's research focuses on genome sequencing technology, bioinformatics and genome editing, according to his biography on the summit's website. He claims to have used CRISPR to manipulate CCR5, a receptor gene linked to the contraction of AIDS, in the two human embryos.

The Chair of the Summit, Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, spoke from the floor after the panel session.

The story had the ring of a science fiction novel: On Sunday, a Chinese scientist announced the births of twin girls whose genes he claims have been edited in their embryonic stage, ostensibly to reduce their risk to AIDS. When asked whether their genotype might affect their upbringing, he said, "I don't have to answer this question".

"Certainly this is something that the genetics world all thought would possibly happen one day, but I think we were hoping it would happen with a lot more regulation", said Ahmed, a genetic counsellor at a private DNA testing lab in Toronto.

"I think we do that with some risk".

"I think there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of a lack of transparency", he added.

'An Experiment on Human Beings': Outrage as Chinese Researcher Claims to Change Babies' DNA

Amid repeated questions about the ethics and methodology of his experiment, He said he found volunteers through a social network of HIV carriers and explained, line by line and over 70 minutes, the implications of the study to seek their informed consent. "If you had involved the Chinese authorities, they might have said you can't do it". "Should such epic scientific misadventures proceed, a technology with enormous promise for prevention and treatment of disease will be overshadowed by justifiable public outrage, fear and disgust", he said.

"After yesterday, with the revelations of the births of gene-edited twins, I think the tide was largely negative and the prospect of anticipating ethical uses in the future was nearly set aside", Daley said.

But Daley argued that a consensus was a emerging that "if we can solve the scientific challenges, it may be a moral imperative that it should be permitted".

The disclosure this week of He's research - carried out in southern China mostly under a shroud of secrecy - has sparked urgent debate about the ethics of gene-editing and raised the prospect of a future in which parents produce "designer babies" with selectively improved traits such as intelligence or strength. "I'm very critical of calling this a scientific breakthrough because he's messed up all along".

A Chinese scientist who claimed he had edited babies' genes to resist HIV said the trial is being paused. The father of the babies in the study is HIV positive, a fact which motivated the study and the family's willingness to take part.

Many experts who attended Wednesday's panel discussion grilled He about the ethical issues inherent in creating genetically engineered humans.

He also faces probes by the Shenzhen City Medical Ethics Expert Board and the Chinese Academy of Science's academic division. He, the statement says, has been on unpaid leave from the university.

The National Health Commission on Monday ordered local officials in Guangdong province -where Shenzhen is located - to investigate He's actions.

CRISPR is a molecular tool that allows scientists to edit sections of DNA. One reason is that a mistake could introduce a new disease that could be passed down for generations.

He said he chose embryo gene editing for HIV because these infections are a big problem in China. "There are still technical hurdles we have to solve", he said.


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