Gene-editing scientist claims 'another potential pregnancy'

Henrietta Brewer
November 29, 2018

A Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world's first genetically edited babies has defended his work.

Dr He Jiankui revealed the possible pregnancy while making his first public comments about his scandal-hit work at an worldwide 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.

He wasn't trying to cure an existing disease, but rather remove the pathway through which HIV enters by instructing CRISPR-Cas9 to disable a gene called CCR5.

But scientists and the Chinese Government denounced the work he said he carried out, and a hospital linked to his research suggested its ethical approval had been forged. "I think it's a puzzling choice and a poor choice", Musunuru says of targeting the CCR5 gene.

Gene-editing scientist claims 'another potential pregnancy'

Summit chair David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate, said there had been "a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of a lack of transparency".

While there are no laws or regulations in China forbidding the creation of genome-edited children, such practice is widely condemned by the global scientific community.

Expressing his deep pride over the birth of the twin girls last month, He Jiankui, 31, also disclosed that there had been another similar pregnancy which ended in an early miscarriage.

Editing the genes of embryos is banned in many countries because DNA changes passed to future generations could have unanticipated effects on the entire gene pool.

Speaking at a genome summit in Hong Kong, Dr He Jiankui said he was "proud" of his controversial work, which involved using a powerful tool to modify the DNA of healthy twin babies.

He says he altered the DNA of twin girls when they were conceived to try to help them resist possible future infection with the AIDS virus. Just because the first case may have been a misstep "should in no way, I think, lead us to stick our heads in the sand and not consider the very, very positive aspects that could come forth by a more responsible pathway", Daley said.

Daley spoke Wednesday at an worldwide conference in Hong Kong, where the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui (HEH JEE-ahn-qway) of Shenzhen, also is scheduled to speak.

The National Health Commission has ordered local officials in Guangdong province to investigate He's actions, and his employer, Southern University of Science and Technology of China, is investigating as well.

His unverified claims of leading the team behind genetically edited human babies has attracted fierce condemnation for breaching medical ethics - and possibly the law.

China's Genetics Society and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research said in a statement that Dr He had acted as an "individual" and his work posed "tremendous safety risks for the research subjects".

Gene editing could potentially help avoid heritable diseases by deleting or changing troublesome coding in embryos.

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.

"So far the main response within China is to condemn and criticize this work", said Jing-Bao Nie, an expert on Chinese bioethics at the University of Otago in New Zealand. 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.

Other reports by iNewsToday