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Chinese scientist pauses 'gene-edited baby' trial after outcry

29 November 2018
Chinese scientist pauses 'gene-edited baby' trial after outcry

Hailsham is a decidedly ... eerie place. They just didn't announce it to the world.

One of the ethical guidelines involved in gene editing is restricting its use to only addressing medical needs which can not be effectively treated through other means. After their donations, the children's fate is sealed: They will die. Perhaps because this science always seems like it's on the brink of being possible, but slightly out of reach.

Canadian researchers have added their voices to widespread global condemnation of a Chinese scientist who says he helped create genetically modified twin girls using a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR.

Mr He said he altered embryos for seven couples during IVF treatment, with one pregnancy resulting.

Mr He says he was able to neutralise a gene called CCR5, which forms a protein doorway that enables HIV to enter a cell. His goal? Babies with HIV resistance, a trait that fewer than 1 percent of people are estimated to have.

He Jiankui, who goes by "JK", studied at Rice and Stanford universities in the USA before returning to his homeland to open a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, where he also has two genetics companies. His recent work broke from scientific protocol and ethical norms, both in method and delivery. Gene editing of this sort is banned in the United States due to fear of the DNA changes being passed to future generations with the risk of harm to other genes.

Before He's talk, Dr. George Daley, Harvard Medical School's dean and one of the conference organizers, warned against a backlash to gene editing because of He's experiment. Expanding on his motivations in a YouTube video, He spoke about discrimination that HIV-positive people still face in China and many developing countries.

China's Southern University of Science and Technology It said He is on unpaid leave until 2021. "And I know my work can be controversial, but I believe some families need the technology".

"If the enzyme, in addition to doing what you want it to do, just happens to also modify a cancer-related gene, then you can see an increased risk for a tumor". It has only recently been tried in adults to treat serious diseases. But when it comes to embryos, those changes can be inherited by future generations. He's claims represented "a major failure" that called for much stronger regulation and possibly a moratorium on such research, Daley says.

Church, known for contrarian views, also said that he thought it would only be matter of time before the identities of the children and their mother became known. "Modifying human embryos at this stage in our understanding of biology is clearly unethical", says Christopher Anderson, a bioengineering professor at UC Berkeley.

Do we really need gene editing?

Critics such as Sandip Patel of the University of California at San Diego were legion on social media.

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, risky and irresponsible".

Southern University said in a statement it would be investigating the experiment, which appeared to have "seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct". "Many of them thought the research gave them a chance to have babies who do not have the risk of getting HIV".

"I found it highly troubling that He avoided questions about approval processes, and his answers on patient recruitment and consent did not reassure me". Over 120 Chinese scientists from leading research universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University in China, Stanford in the United States, and Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology, and Research signed a joint statement condemning He's research."The project completely ignored the principles of biomedical ethics, conducting experiments on humans without proving it's safe", said Qiu Zilong, a neuroscience researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (中国科学) who penned the statement posted on social media platform, Weibo."We can only describe such behavior as insane".