Over 100 scientists say baby gene editing is ‘crazy’

Nora Nguyen
November 29, 2018

He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China said he altered the DNA of twin girls born earlier this month to try to help them resist possible future infection with the AIDS virus - a dubious goal, ethically and scientifically.

Chinese researcher He Jiankui made the claim in interviews with the Associated Press.

That type of gene editing is banned in the US except in lab research. "I would say no babies should be born at this time, following the use of this technology".

However, no independent research paper has been published, and there is no official confirmation yet.

Kathy Niakan, an expert at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said: "If true.this would be a highly irresponsible, unethical and risky use of genome editing technology".

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.

Experts fear altering the embryo could cause harm to the individual and future generations.

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In this October 10, 2018 photo, He Jiankui is reflected in a glass panel as he works at a computer at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province. The gene modification was done with the help of CRISPR, a gene-editing tool that is cheap and easy to use. He said the process had "worked safely" and the twin girls were "as healthy as any other babies".

"I feel a strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example", he told the AP.

"If this is a false report, it is scientific misconduct and deeply irresponsible", Robert Winston, emeritus professor of fertility studies and professor of science and society at Imperial College London, tells BBC News.

He, who holds a Ph.D. from Rice University in Houston, will be a panelist at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong this week. "Right after sending her husband's sperm into her eggs, we also sent in a little bit of protein and instructions for gene surgery", said He, from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, speaking in the video.

The university's biology academic committee said He's work "seriously violates academic ethics and academic norms".

The university distanced itself from He in a statement Monday that said the researcher had been on unpaid leave since February, and that the school was unaware of the experiment. A university spokesman said the professor had been on a break from teaching since early this year.

A worker places an embryo in a storage tube at a laboratory in Shenzhen.

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In this October 9, 2018 photo, a microplate containing embryos that have been injected with Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA is seen in a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province.

The issue of editing human DNA is highly controversial, and only allowed in the United States in laboratory research - although U.S. scientists said a year ago that they had successfully edited the genetic code of piglets to remove dormant viral infections.

Church and Musunuru questioned the decision to allow one of the embryos to be used in a pregnancy attempt, because the Chinese researchers said they knew in advance that both copies of the intended gene had not been altered.

It's only recently been tried in adults to treat deadly diseases, and the changes are confined to that person.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health said Wednesday there should be worldwide intervention. China outlaws human cloning but not specifically gene editing.

In addition, Zhang said that in 2015, "the worldwide research community said it would be irresponsible to proceed with any germline editing without 'broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application.' (This was the consensus statement from the 2015 worldwide Summit on Human Gene Editing.) It is my hope that this year's summit will serve as a forum for deeper conversations about the implications of this news and provide guidance on how we as a global society can best benefit from gene editing". Because there's (supposedly) been an global agreement not to do such experiments on human embryos.

However, the Shenzhen commission said the hospital's ethics committee was not valid because the hospital did not register the committee's establishment with the commission as required.

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The team led by Jiankui He focused on removing a gene called CCR5, critical for the HIV virus to enter into the cells.

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