Published: Thu, November 29, 2018
Sci-tech | By April Francis

Scientist Who Gene-Edited Babies Speaks at Conference, Addresses Controversial Research

Scientist Who Gene-Edited Babies Speaks at Conference, Addresses Controversial Research

The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, revealed the possible pregnancy Wednesday while making his first public comments about his controversial work at an global conference in Hong Kong.

Asked whether there were any other edited gene pregnancies as part of his trials, He said there was another "potential" pregnancy and replied "yes" to a follow-up question as to whether it was a "chemical pregnancy", which refers to an early-stage miscarriage.

Instead, the scientist made the claims to the Associated Press news organisation, and the journalists involved haven't been able to independently verify them.

The institutions affiliated with He, including his university - the Southern University of Science and Technology - and the Shenzhen hospital where he purportedly received ethical approval for the project, have said that they had no knowledge of his work. He claims to have genetically modified their embryos to make the children resistant to future HIV infection, and alleges that the process resulted in the aforementioned twins.

Scientists have been divided in their response to the claims, with some praising the goal of eliminating HIV and others warning that such human experimentation is risky and unethical.

A U.S. scientist said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States due to risks that altered DNA will warp other genes. He was scheduled to speak again at the conference on Thursday, but left Hong Kong and through a spokesman sent a statement saying: "I will remain in China, my home country, and co-operate fully with all inquiries about my work".

INFORMED CONSENT He, who said he was against gene enhancement, said eight couples were initially enrolled for his study while one dropped out.

"It's extremely unfair to Chinese scientists who are diligent, innovative and defending the bottom line of scientific ethics", they wrote, adding that "directly experimenting on humans is nothing but insane".

Prof He also said that the study had been submitted to a scientific journal for review, though he did not name the journal. Any children born as a result of genome editing will also need long-term follow up. He's work "irresponsible" and a "failure of self-regulation by the scientific community". The capability of Chinese researchers is highly respected, but if the worldwide consensus on being transparent and cautious about gene editing does not hold the future is hard to predict.

Some are concerned, however, that He's study may cause a knock on effect that leads to an overall suppression of interest in genetic editing.

Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicine for MIT Technology Review - the publication which first highlighted the trial on Sunday - said He's talk was "ethically a half-baked mess".

The hospital claims that signatures on the medical ethics forms were forged, while his university and the Chinese authorities are both investigating the ethics.

The Chinese researcher said he practiced editing mice, monkey and human embryos in the lab for several years and has applied for patents on his methods. Southern University's He said the twin girls' health would have to be monitored for the next 18 years, and beyond that into adulthood if they give their consent.

"This is a truly unacceptable development", Jennifer Doudna, the University of California, Berkeley, RNA biologist who co-invented CRISPR-based gene editing, tells the AP. They also said that eliminating the CCR5 gene - the crux of He's experiment - can not completely rule out the possibility of the babies contracting HIV.

He's team worked with seven Chinese couples, all of which included an HIV-positive father.

He, who reportedly heads six companies primarily in the genetics sector, said he aims to alter the babies' genes in a way that would protect them from future HIV infection, according to the South China Morning Post. David Baltimore, chair of conference, also mentioned that the research was not medically necessary as there are other treatments for HIV. "I don't think it is credible that it is for a medical need".

Editing sperm, eggs or early embryos, however, presents serious concerns, he said. "We still might have a glimmer of hope to close it before it's too late", the approximately 120 scientists said in the Chinese-language letter.

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