Chinese scientist He Jiankui defends 'world's first gene-edited babies'

Kenny Tucker
November 29, 2018

If He's claims are accurate, Annas wrote, then the academic violated "a growing medical-scientific consensus that gene editing not be used on human embryos to create a baby until much more is known about its safety (especially "off target" effects), how to obtain informed consent, and how to monitor any resulting children (and their children) for at least 3 generations (indeed, the Hong Kong conference is the second global one on the science and ethics of Human Genome Editing, designed especially to create an worldwide consensus)".

But there is as yet no independent verification of his claims, which have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal - an omission that the scientist's critics have seized on.

"First, I must apologize that this result was leaked unexpectedly", He told some 700 attendees. Researchers are working hard to make CRISPR editing ever more precise.

AP via The Canadian Press Fred Gmitter, a geneticist at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, holds citrus seedlings that are used for gene editing research at the University of Florida.

"Fundamentally, I don't think genome editing is ready to be applied in embryos for implantation purposes". We only found out about it after it's happened and after the children are born. "Directly experimenting on human is nothing but insane ... as soon as a living human is produced, no one could predict what kind of impact it will bring, as the modified inheritable substance will inevitably blend into human genome pool", they wrote, adding that the trial is a "huge blow" to the reputation of Chinese biomedical research.

He recruited HIV-positive heterosexual couples who wanted to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization, or IVF, to participate in the work through an AIDS advocacy group. Nobel laureate David Baltimore said that proceeding with germ-line editing in this way was "irresponsible" and criticized He for not being more open.

George Daley says it would be unfortunate if a misstep with a first case led scientists and regulators to reject the good that could come from altering DNA to treat or prevent diseases.

"Scientists who go rogue ... it carries a deep, deep cost to the scientific community", Daley said.

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"Using these technologies prematurely can really adversely impact the entire scientific field". "We just don't know yet".

Tim Caulfield, a professor of health and law at the University of Alberta, said that while the advent of gene-editing is exciting, the use of the technology to reshape human DNA is "premature". Scientists have long searched for ways to block this pathway to protect people from HIV. "Science operates under a social licence - scientists work within limits defined by broader community concerns", said Darren Saunders, associate professor in the school of medical sciences at the University of New South Wales, in an emailed statement. "We are equally shocked as everybody else", an official in charge of medical ethics evaluation was quoted as saying. "We are completely in the dark".

If true, this is a significant advance in genetic science, but there are some very serious problems with this news.

A spokesman for He said he has been on leave from teaching since early this year but remains on the faculty and has a lab at the university.

According to The Guardian, China's National Health Commission has ordered an investigation into He's claims, while the Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission has begun examining the ethics of the study.

He said in one YouTube video that the editing process, which he called gene surgery, "worked safely as intended" and that the resulting twins were "as healthy as any other babies". One reason is that a mistake could introduce a new disease that could be passed down for generations. Designer babies are desirable by definition and if there's enough demand, the scientific marketplace will find a way to meet it. Using a technique called CRISPR-Cas9, the gene responsible for allowing HIV to infect the body was altered to mimic a natural genetic variation in some humans that confers strong resistance to the virus.

He, a PhD graduate from the Rice University in Houston who also conducted post-doctoral research at Stanford, stressed that the twins' parents had given their full consent and his work would be needed to stem the spread of HIV and AIDS.

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