Gene-editing outcry: Third baby ‘may be on the way’

Kenny Tucker
November 30, 2018

There has been wide condemnation of the unproven claim by He, who appeared this week at an worldwide conference on gene editing in Hong Kong.

Chinese scientist He Jiankui is due to speak Wednesday at a summit of biomedical experts in Hong Kong, just days after publishing claims to have created the world's first genetically-edited babies. Gene editing of this sort is banned in the USA due to fear of the DNA changes being passed to future generations with the risk of harm to other genes. Such work is banned in most countries.

To make the process a success, the doctor made use of CRISPR gene-editing technique to inject external protein and certain instructions to permanently prevent the twin girls - Lulu and Nana - from ever getting infected by HIV virus and contracting AIDS disease.

He Jiankui, the scientist who claims to have used CRISPR to edit the genomes of twin girls born earlier this month, announced today (November 28) at a conference in China that a second pregnancy with a CRISPR-modified embryo is progress, the Associated Press reports.

He was absent from the opening ceremony of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing held at the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday morning. The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He works, distanced itself from him and called the research a "serious violation of academic ethics and norms", adding that he has been on unpaid leave since February. When asked whether their genotype might affect their upbringing, he said, "I don't have to answer this question".

Nobel laureate David Baltimore said that proceeding with germ-line editing in this way was "irresponsible" and criticized He for not being more open. CRISPR has been hailed as an innovation with tremendous potential, but many in the scientific community believe the technology is still experimental and not ready for human application.

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The Guangdong province Health Commission said on its website on Wednesday it and Shenzhen city had set up a team to investigate the case.

"The volunteers were informed of the risk posed by the existence of one potential off-target and they chose to implant", he said.

The organizers of a conference where He claimed to have edited the genes also condemned the work on Thursday, calling it "deeply disturbing" and "irresponsible".

He's experiment would be prohibited under Chinese laws and regulations, according to state media CCTV, citing remarks by deputy minister of China's Ministry of Science and Technology Xu Nanping. "I feel proudest because Mark [the twins' father] thought he had lost hope for life", Jiankui said, according to the South China Morning Post.

But scientists and the Chinese government have denounced the supposed finding, and a hospital linked to the research suggested its ethical approval had been forged.

Southern University of Science and Technology said that it is unaware of the research project and is launching an investigation.

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