Scientist behind gene editing claims second pregnancy under way

Pat Wise
December 3, 2018

He said he had performed the gene editing to help protect the babies from future infection of HIV, the virus responsible for the disease AIDS.

No one knows exactly how He Jiankui, on leave from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, did it. Scientists gathered in Hong Kong at an worldwide summit on human genome editing will have to wait until Wednesday to hear He describe his work in more detail.

The issue of editing human DNA is extremely controversial, and only allowed in the U.S. in laboratory research - although USA scientists said previous year that they had successfully edited the genetic code of piglets to remove dormant viral infections. South University of Science and Technology of China declared that it didn't know about the project at all and it condemned He's project for "seriously violating academic ethics and academic norms".

It's a technology that lets scientists alter the DNA of living cells - from plants, animals, even humans - more precisely than ever before. He told the Associated Press that he edited embryos for seven couples, though only one pregnancy has come to fruition so far.

"Although I appreciate the global threat posed by HIV, at this stage, the risks of editing embryos to knock out CCR5 seem to outweigh the potential benefits", Zhang said in a statement.

He Jiankui defended his work in front of a packed Hong Kong biomedical conference, saying he had successfully altered the DNA of twin girls born to an HIV-positive father, an apparent medical first.

It is said that many mainstream scientists feel like gene-editing humans are too unsafe to try, and others are said to have denounced this Chinese research as it being akin to human experimentation.

"Here you have a scientist changing the human race, and you have a YouTube video about it, with no [scientific] paper". It said He is on unpaid leave until 2021. He and his team used the technology to disable the gene that allows HIV to enter cells.

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The use of the technology immediately raised questions from ethicists since there are other ways to prevent HIV transmission to a fetus, and many think that the first applications of gene editing should be reserved for diseases that are deadly with no treatment options.

The gene-editing of babies is seen by some as a slippery slope to enhancements or designer children.

He and hundreds of other scientists are gathered at the Second International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Hong Kong. It's calling on "international experts to form an independent committee" to probe the matter.

Jennifer Doudna, a University of California-Berkeley scientist and one of the inventors of the CRISPR gene editing tool which Mr He claimed to have used, said: "This is a truly unacceptable development".

"If true, this experiment is monstrous", he told Reuters.

Rice University has also opened an investigation into Michael Deem (a bioengineering professor at Rice and previous supervisor of He) and his possible role in the study. Several scientists who had reviewed materials that He provided to the AP said that "tests so far are insufficient to say the editing worked or to rule out harm". In the USA, scientists can perform laboratory embryo research only with private funding, not with federal taxpayer money.

"All of us here at this conference are struggling to figure out what was done and also whether the process was done properly", she said. "And I'm willing to take the criticism for them".

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