Gene-edited babies and cloned monkeys: China tests bioethics

Cristina Cross
November 29, 2018

A Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world's first genetically edited babies said at a conference on Wednesday that his actions were safe and ethical, and he asserted that he was proud of what he had done.

He Jiankui, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, addressed about 700 people attending the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong on Wednesday.

He said there was "another potential pregnancy" involving a second couple but when questioned further, he said it was a chemical pregnancy - a term referring to an early miscarriage.

There is not yet independent confirmation of his claim, but scientists and regulators have been swift to condemn the experiment as unethical and unscientific.

On Monday, more than 100 mostly Chinese scientists signed a petition calling for greater oversight by their country on gene-editing experiments, while Southern University said it planned to investigate He's claim, saying the work "seriously violated academic ethics and standards".

He told reporters that his team would follow up on the development and health conditions of the twins for at least 18 years and he had conducted numerous experiments using ape embryos before altering the genes of the twin girls.

He's remarks come two days after The Associated Press reported on his experiment, which has since drawn both support and condemnation from the global scientific community.

He also indicated the work had been submitted for publication in a peer reviewed journal.

There already are some rules that should have prevented what He says he did, said Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin lawyer and bioethicist and a conference organizer.

The case prompted a heated debate among the scientific community, with many raising concerns over the lack of verified data and the risks of exposing healthy embryos to gene editing.

Born in China's Hunan Province, He graduated from the University of Science and Technology of China in 2006 and pursued a PhD at Rice and postdoctoral research at Stanford. He stressed that Catholics do not need to automatically consider all gene editing to be problematic, but "need to be attentive to where the dangers are".

Scientist He Jiankui attends the International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong
Scientist He Jiankui attends the International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong

"I think we still need to understand the motivation for the study and what the process was for informed consent", said Jennifer Doudna, a co-inventor of the CRISPR gene-editing tool, who watched He speak.

China's National Health Commission has ordered an "immediate investigation" into He's activities, according to a statement on its website.

Shenzhen Harmonicare Medical Holdings Limited, named as being involved in He's project in China's clinical trial registry, sought to distance itself by stating the hospital never participated in any operations relating to the gene-edited babies and no related delivery had taken place.

"It would be really unfortunate.to have the world looking at the first two genome-edited children because think of the pressure that's going to put them under", said Lovell-Badge. He claimed the gene-edited twin girls were born earlier this month.

"I must apologise this result was leaked unexpectedly", He said of the apparent breakthrough "The clinical trial was paused due to the current situation", he added. One of the babies had only one copy of the CCR5 gene edited, which was not enough to confer HIV resistance.

He reportedly worked with a volunteer couple in which the male partner was HIV positive.

It's a technology that lets scientists alter the DNA of living cells - from plants, animals, even humans - more precisely than ever before. "For what it's worth, I think he's got honest intentions but I don't agree with him".

However, critics say there are many other ways to protect people against HIV and expressed bafflement at why He would chose this as the first scenario to try creating genetically modified human babies.

When asked about the source of research funding, He said the study had started out with funding from SUST, but had later paid participants' medical expenses through his company.

But genome editing could also more controversially used for genetic enhancements, such as ensuring children have a particular desirable characteristic such as a certain eye colour.

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