Published: Mon, December 03, 2018
Sci-tech | By Jackie Newman

Scientist's claim of gene-edited babies creates uproar

Scientist's claim of gene-edited babies creates uproar

A controversial Chinese scientist who this week claimed to have created the world's first gene-edited babies now says a second pregnancy is underway. In one of those videos, He strongly objects to calling children whose genes have been edited "designer babies" and answers his own question, "Why HIV?" with "safety and value", noting that 100 million people have a "natural genetic variation" in the gene CCR5 that he altered with what he calls "gene surgery".

The Southern University of Science and Technology in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen said it had been unaware of the research project and that the academic, He Jiankui, had been on leave without pay since February.

Gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

CRISPR is a molecular tool that allows scientists to edit sections of DNA.

Speaking with the Associated Press, He said that twin girls were born earlier this month after he edited their embryos using CRISPR technology. But Darnovsky and her colleagues said that argument is moot, as the kids wouldn't have been affected by their father's HIV status anyway.

But this is not the first time Chinese researchers have experimented with human embryo technology, and last September scientists at Sun Yat-sen University used an adapted version of gene-editing to correct a disease-causing mutation in human embryos. Beside He's claim of the birth of the twin girls, it is yet to be confirmed whether the other embryos he worked on have been aborted, or are also due to be born.

In 2017, the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine said lab-only research to learn how to alter embryos is ethical - but said it's not ready for pregnancies yet.

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It's all uncharted territory, and the long-term consequences of gene editing on humans can be unpredictable, which is why the scientific community advises caution. "This work reinforces the urgent need to confine the use of gene editing in human embryos to settings where a clear unmet medical need exists". He also spoke about his research with organizers of an global conference on gene editing in Hong Kong, the AP reported.

"Our school will immediately hire authoritative experts to set up an independent committee to conduct in-depth investigations and publish relevant information after investigation", SUSTC said in the statement.

Conference moderator Robin Lovell-Badge said He's trial was a "backward step" for the science industry, but described the babies' birth as "momentous" nonetheless.

The approach has been used previously to edit the HBB gene responsible for a condition called β-thalassaemia.

"No gene was changed except the one to prevent HIV infection".

Dr. Kiran Musunuru at the University of Pennsylvania called it " experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible".

After Mr He spoke, David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from the California Institute of Technology and a leader of the conference, said the scientist's work "would still be considered irresponsible" because it did not meet criteria many scientists agreed on several years ago before gene editing could be considered. The first modification of human embryos was reported by another Chinese team in May 2015. However, eradicating diseases at the source is certainly a noble mission and I for one, would love to see He's research propagated and taken up by others. The CCR5 gene, for example, affects the functioning of white blood cells and a person's vulnerability to the West Nile virus.

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