Scientific community outraged at Chinese scientist's baby gene-editing

Henrietta Strickland
October 17, 2019

China has halted the work of the scientist who claims to have created the world's first genetically edited babies, and says it will investigate. Professor Julian Savulescu, an expert in ethics at the University of Oxford, said that "if true, this experiment is monstrous".

He Jiankui, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, addressed a packed hall of around 700 people attending the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong.

He Jiankui, a researcher from Shenzhen, announced in an interview with AP news agency that he had recently helped the first twin girls with modified DNA be born.

He Jiankui, the scientist who led the effort, announced the outcome in a promotional video on YouTube Sunday, just days ahead of participating in an worldwide conference on human genome editing scheduled to take place this week in Hong Kong.

Not all of the altered embryos were implanted for future pregnancies - parents were given the choice to reject implantation and only provide base material for the experiment, sperm and an egg.

Although the science holds promise for helping people already born and studies testing that are underway, a statement issued Thursday by the 14-member conference leaders says it's irresponsible to try it on eggs, sperm or embryos except in lab research because not enough is known yet about its risks or safety.

The conference moderator, Robin Lovell-Badge, said the summit organisers were unaware of the story until it broke this week. The academy said it hopes the babies would grow up happy and healthy, both physically and psychologically, with "the most care possible that can be provided by society".

"Clearly however it is a point in history".

He's video triggered a heated debate about gene editing. "So it is a momentous point in history".

He's claim would "be considered irresponsible", Baltimore said. To do so, the team have used the immensely powerful molecular scissors known as CRISPR/Cas9 - an emerging technology that can precisely "cut and paste" genes, allowing for sections of DNA to be removed and replaced, nearly at will.

The MIT Technology Review warns that "the technology is ethically charged because changes to an embryo would be inherited by future generations and could eventually affect the entire gene pool". Recently, a United Kingdom ethics body, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, officially permitted editing embryonic DNA if it serves the child's best interests.

Qiu Renzong, formerly the vice president of the Chinese Ministry of Health's ethics committee, told reporters at the conference that lax regulations in China mean that scientists who break the rules often face no punishment, and think of the ministry as being "without teeth".

But this is not the first time Chinese researchers have experimented with human embryo technology, and last September, scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in China used an adapted version of gene-editing to correct a disease-causing mutation in human embryos.

The twin girls are, according to a Chinese research team, the very first genetically modified human beings.

There is also a history of fraud within China's academic community - including a scandal past year that led to the withdrawal of 100 "compromised" academic papers. Conference leaders called for an independent investigation of the claim by He, who spoke to the group Wednesday as worldwide criticism mounted.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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