Scientist questions ethics of first genetically edited babies

Pablo Tucker
December 3, 2018

The conference was rocked by the Chinese researcher's claim to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies.

The issue of editing human DNA is extremely controversial, and only allowed in the U.S. in laboratory research - although USA scientists said previous year that they had successfully edited the genetic code of piglets to remove dormant viral infections.

Gene editing on humans is banned in the USA, notes the report, because modifying genes and making changes in the DNA could possibly move from one generation to the next and there is an ever-present threat to the health of other genes as well. The technology enables scientists to cut an arbitrary DNA sequence in genomes.

He said "another potential pregnancy" of a gene-edited embryo was in its early stages.

Others, such as Harvard University's George Church, said that HIV is "a major and growing public health threat" which would justify such attempts, however.


The MIT Technology Review explains that Chinese researchers first modified embryos' genes in a lab dish in 2015 using the gene-editing tool CRISPR-cas9, but He's experiments would mark the first case of a successful birth from such experiments, if true. Harmonicare Women's and Children's Hospital, where He said he received ethical approval for his research, denied they had given him the go-ahead and filed a report with police.

"Here you have a scientist changing the human race, and you have a YouTube video about it, with no [scientific] paper". In a statement, his host university said that the trial occurred while he was on leave, and didn't happen at their campus.

The team planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera. Such work is banned in most countries.

Just a few hours after the news was released, 122 scientists from universities around the world, including Peking University, Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, jointly released a statement on Weibo that strongly denounced the use of genome-editing on humans. JK spoke of his study this week in Hong Kong, notes the report, to one organizer of an worldwide conference on gene editing and has also spoken to the AP on what his research has found so far. It's calling on "international experts to form an independent committee" to probe the matter.

Meanwhile, the NPR reports Jiankui faces an investigation by a local medical ethics board to investigate whether his experiment broke Chinese laws or regulations.


The ministry "firmly opposes" such gene-editing and has "already demanded that the relevant organisation suspend the scientific activities of relevant personnel", Xu said. The target of the gene editing research, however, was not aimed at preventing a risk of transmission. "We still have a lot of work to do to prove and establish that the procedure is actually safe", Musunuru said. An American scientist, Michael Deem of Rice University, also worked on the project.

The research has been robustly criticised by Chinese scientists and institutions.

Doctors and ethicists have long feared the day when genetic engineering would begin to be used in humans and now it's claimed those fears have become reality. "And I'm willing to take the criticism for them".

"We've been talking about genetic engineering of embryos for a while... what is a bit more revolutionary is that these children were allegedly engineered to provide resistance to a disease".


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