Couples could choose whether to use edited or unedited embryos for pregnancy attempts. 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’s University, Southern University of Science and Technology, said in a statement that the researcher has been on leave since February 1. The university where He is based said it will hire experts to investigate, saying the work “seriously violated academic ethics and standards”.
Resistantce to possible infection with the AIDS virus
The scientist, He, says twin girls born earlier this month have DNA altered to make them resistant to possible future infection with the AIDS virus. There is no independent confirmation of He’s claim and he has not yet published in any scientific journal where it would be vetted by experts. He’s claims have neither been independently verified nor peer-reviewed. Scientists and the Chinese government have denounced the work that He said he carried out, and a hospital linked to his research suggested its ethical approval had been forged.
“It’s extremely unfair to Chinese scientist who are diligent, innovative and defending the bottom line of scientific ethics”. One couple dropped out, but there was “another potential pregnancy” of a gene-edited embryo in its early stages. Its risks are unknown, and leading scientists have called for a moratorium on its use except in lab studies until more is learned. Scientists and bioethics experts reacted with shock, anger and alarm Monday to a Chinese researcher’s claim that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies. He helped make world’s first genetically edited babies: twin girls whose DNA he said he altered. More than 100 scientists signed a petition calling for greater oversight on gene editing experiments.
Editing eggs, sperm or embryos is different
Editing eggs, sperm or embryos is different- the changes can be inherited and can pass to future generations.
“Regardless of where it was conducted, this work as described in press reports violates scientific conduct guidelines and is inconsistent with ethical norms of the scientific community and Rice University”, the school said in a statement.
A powerful but simple new tool called CRISPR-cas9
They include Feng Zhang and Jennifer Doudna, inventors of a powerful but simple new tool called CRISPR-cas9 that reportedly was used on the Chinese babies during fertility treatments when they were conceived.
“Not only do I see this as risky, but I am also deeply concerned about the lack of transparency” around the work, Zhang, a scientist at MIT’s Broad Institute, said in a statement.
Medical advances need to be openly discussed with patients, doctors, scientists and society, he wrote. Doudna, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the Hong Kong conference organizers, said that He met with her Monday to tell her of his work, and that she and others plan to let him speak at the conference Wednesday as originally planned. Doudna is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports AP’s Health & Science Department.
Another conference leader, Harvard Medical School dean Dr. George Daley, said he worries about other scientists trying this in the absence of regulations or a ban. “I would be concerned if this initial report opened the floodgates to broader practice”, Daley said. These children, and their children’s children, have had their futures irrevocably changed without consent, ethical review or meaningful deliberation”. It’s unclear whether participants fully understood the purpose and potential risks and benefits.
One independent expert even questioned whether the claim could be a hoax
Deem, the Rice scientist who says he took part in the work, called that ridiculous. “Of course the work occurred”, Deem said. The gene editing tools modified a gene called CCR5.
He said gene editing would help protect the girls from infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He said eight couples were initially enrolled for his study while one dropped out. The criteria required the father to be HIV positive and the mother to be HIV negative. He said he would monitor the two newborns for the next 18 years and hoped they would support continued monitoring thereafter.
He Jiankui said his results could be used for millions of people with inherited diseases. China’s National Health Commission has ordered officials to investigate and verify He’s claims.
Pandora’s box has been opened
After He spoke, David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from the California Institute of Technology and a leader of the conference, said He’s work would “be considered irresponsible” because it did not meet criteria many scientists agreed on several years ago before gene editing could be considered. Since there are many ways to prevent HIV infection and The U. S. National Institutes of Health said Wednesday there should be international intervention.
Meanwhile, more American scientists said they had contact with He and were aware of or suspected what he was doing, The Associated Press reported. In a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange on Tuesday, the group said preliminary investigations indicated the signatures on the application form circulated on the internet are “suspected to have been forged, and no relevant meeting of the Medical Ethics Committee of the hospital in fact took place”.
The Health and Family Planning Commission in Shenzhen, where the scientist worked, said it was exploring the ethical questions as it reviewed the process followed in He’s work. In recent years scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body.
“The embryos were healthy. Only found out about it after it happened and the children were born”, Baltimore said. “If you had involved the Chinese authorities, they might have said you can’t do it”.
The government’s medical ethics committee in the city of Shenzhen, in southern China, said it was investigating the case, as was the Guangdong provincial health commission, according to Southern Metropolis Daily, a state media outlet.
The “designer babies” experiment
The “designer babies” experiment was publicised in a a serious of YouTube videos. He, a professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claims that his lab had been editing embryos’ genetic codes for seven couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF).
While outside scientists have yet to confirm that He truly did genetically edit human embryos, if the claims are true, the experiment represents a major breach of research ethics. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.
The summit was organized try to reach a global consensus on whether and how it would be ethical to create genetically modified human beings with CRISPR. The flaws in his approach also make Lovell-Badge believe that the babies are real. He Jiankui, center, with Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute, left, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing.
Despite ethical concerns in the West, a recent study suggested that the Chinese public is broadly in favor of using gene-editing for medical purposes. Liang Chen, a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University is quoted as saying.
Image Credits: Alamy, The Telegraph