Chinese baby-gene editing scientist 'proud of his work'

Pearl Mccarthy
December 3, 2018

HONG KONG-Scientists and bioethics experts reacted with shock, anger and alarm on November 26 to a Chinese researcher's claim that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies.

The claims were "shocking and unacceptable" and breached "the bottom line of morality and ethics that the academic community adheres to", he told CCTV. He revealed it Monday in Hong Kong where a gene editing conference is getting underway, and previously in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press. "I hope this is a wake up call for everybody to recognize that while this technology is incredibly exciting, this is and important moment where we need to grapple with responsibility of managing this technology going forward".

David Cyranoski of the journal Nature posted on social media that He was in the southern city and ready to "cooperate fully with all inquiries" about his work. And as VOA reports, over 300 scientists, both from China and overseas, have signed a petition questioning the necessity of the work. The National Health Commission has said Prof He's work "violates China's laws, regulations and ethical standards" and has said that investigations have been initiated. Scientists have long anxious about the implications for humanity of such genetic engineering. If the Chinese authorities confirm that the babies were born, that would be in violation of current regulations, Xu said.

Deem has published three research papers with He and was his adviser at Rice for more than three years.

Outside scientists and ethicists slammed the experiment for being medically unnecessary, because the babies wouldn't have been born infected with the virus, which can also be prevented with existing, low-risk interventions.

China's government has ordered a halt to work by a medical team that claimed to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies. Other scientists pointed to now available prophylactic treatments and antiretroviral drugs that can be effective in preventing HIV transmission and infection, saying the procedure was unnecessary.

In Hong Kong yesterday, the scientist claimed that he used the CRISPR/cas9 gene-editing tool to modify human embryos, but he made no apologies, saying he was "proud" of the work.

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He appeared before a packed audience in person and online to defend his work at the summit on Wednesday, but the presentation was far from convincing to experts.

More than 100 scientists, most in China, said in an open letter on Tuesday that the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to edit the genes of human embryos was risky, unjustified and harmed the reputation and development of the biomedical community in China.

Dr. He told his colleagues he conducted his research in secret.

The National Health Commission is now investigating the claims made by He.

In a 30-minute talk Wednesday at a gene editing summit in Hong Kong, He Jiankui of South University of Science and Technology of China, in Shenzhen, laid out the steps he took to perform the first-ever editing of the human germline-cells that are passed on by reproduction.

When Al Jazeera visited the researcher's lab, situated on a sprawling campus in a hub of universities in the northern part of Shenzhen, security officers refused entry, complaining about media trying to visit the site. Deem has not responded to requests for comment.

At the main gate, a police van was parked across the road, its blue and red lights flashing. Furthermore, Chinese scientists have rushed to condemn He's work.

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