China orders inquiry into ‘world’s first gene-edited babies’

A Chinese scientist’s claim that he has created the world’s first genetically edited babies has prompted global outcry and an investigation by Chinese health authorities.

In a video posted on Sunday, university professor He Jiankui announced the birth of twin girls whose DNA had been edited to prevent HIV infection. He said the twins’ DNA was modified using CRISPR-Cas9, a technique that allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision.

Editing the genes of embryos, which can alter other genes, is banned in many countries because DNA changes, which will be passed to future generations, could have unforeseen effects on the entire gene pool.

“The girls are safe and healthy as any other babies,” said He, who was educated at Stanford University and works from a lab in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. He did not offer evidence of his work, which has not been independently verified or published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Amid a barrage of criticism, China’s National Health Commission late on Monday ordered officials to “seriously investigate and verify” He’s claims. Shenzhen’s Health and Family Planning commission said it was investigating the ethics committee and review process of He’s work.

While other countries have been slow to conduct clinical trials on humans using CRISPR, China has pushed ahead with such research. In 2016, China was the first to use inject genetically modified cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer. The country is also building the world’s largest DNA database.

Yet Chinese scientists were appalled by He’s work. A joint statement issued by more than 120 Chinese scientists condemned it as “madness” and called on authorities to enact laws on this kind of research.

The Pandora’s Box has been opened, but we may still have a chance to close it before it is irreparable,” the statement said, criticising the influence of He’s work on other Chinese scientists. “It is extremely unfair to Chinese scientist who are diligent, innovative and defending the bottom line of scientific ethics.”

Amid the outcry, research institutions connected to He have distanced themselves from the scientist. “This research work was carried out by Professor He Jiankui outside of the school,” the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, where He worked, said on Monday. It called his research a “serious violation of academic ethics and norms”.

A hospital in Shenzhen where He said he received approval from an ethics board to conduct his work denied any link to He. The hospital, Shenzhen Harmonicare Women’s and Children’s Hospital, said it has lodged a report with the police.

China does not have an explicit ban on using gene editing on embryos for reproduction, but the ministry of science and technology and the ministry of public health have issued ethical guidelines, stating that no human embryos used for research can been be implanted in humans or animals for reproduction.

A group of more than 40 lawyers have called on authorities to investigate He for possible violations of the law and called on the health department to protect the twin girls. A group of 140 HIV researchers in China on Tuesday said in a statement that they also opposed He’s work.

Scientists outside of China were also critical, with some saying a YouTube video was an inadequate way of announcing scientific findings, and others warning that exposing healthy embryos and children to gene editing was irresponsible.

Professor Joyce Harper, professor in genetics and human embryology at London’s UCL, said: “Today’s report of genome editing human embryos for resistance to HIV is premature, dangerous and irresponsible.”

On Weibo, He’s findings was one of the most discussed topics on Tuesday, with users worrying about the technology’s potential to be used by wealthy couples to create “designer babies” and “super humans.”

Quoting Stephen Hawking, several users posted: “Once such super humans appear, there will be significant political problems with unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete … Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings who are improving at an ever-increasing rate.”

In his video on Sunday, He preemptively defended his research against such criticisms. “For forty years, regulations and morals have developed together with IVF … Gene surgery is another IVF advancement and is only meant to help a small number of families.”

He said the twin girls, known as “Lulu” and “Nana”, were born through regular IVF but using an egg which was specially modified before being inserted into the womb. He focused on HIV infection prevention because the girls’ father is HIV positive. “Now he has a reason to live, a reason to work, [he] has purpose,” He said.

The scientist’s claims come ahead of a conference on gene editing in Hong Kong this week, where He is scheduled to speak on Wednesday. He said in his video: “I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them.”

Source- The Guardian



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