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Gene editing of babies sparks bioethics firestorm

By Chris Davis | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-11-28 00:16

A Chinese researcher is claiming that he has helped create the human race's first genetically edited babies, The Associated Press reports exclusively.

And not everyone is cheering.

Scientists and bioethicists reacted with shock, outrage and alarm Monday to Southern University of Science and Technology of China researcher He Jiankui's announcement that he had altered the DNA of twin girls born earlier this month to try to help them resist possible future infection with the AIDS virus.

While there is no independent confirmation that He did what he says he did — his work has not been published in a journal where other experts could review it — if it is true it would be a quantum leap in science, and ethics.

More than 100 scientists signed a petition calling for greater oversight on gene editing experiments.

"This is far too premature," Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, told the AP. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."

The university where He is based said it will hire experts to investigate, saying the work "seriously violated academic ethics and standards".

A spokesman for He said he has been on leave from teaching since early this year but remains on the faculty and has a lab at the university.

Authorities in Shenzhen, the city where He's lab is situated, also launched an investigation.

He Jiankui studied at Rice and Stanford universities in the US before returning to his homeland to open a lab at Southern University in Shenzhen, where he also has two genetics companies.

The US scientist who worked with him on this project after He returned to China was physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem, who was his adviser at Rice. Deem also holds what he called "a small stake" in — and is on the scientific advisory boards of — He's two companies.

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.

He said he chose embryo gene editing for HIV because these infections are a big problem in China. He sought to disable a gene called CCR5 that forms a protein doorway that allows HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter a cell.

Not all scientists condemned the procedure. Famed Harvard University geneticist George Church defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called "a major and growing public health threat".

"I think this is justifiable," Church said of the goal.

In recent years, scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body. The tool, called CRISPR-cas9, makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that's causing problems.

The inventors of the technology — Feng Zhang at MIT and Jennifer Doudna at UC Berkeley — weighed in on the controversy.

"Not only do I see this as risky, but I am also deeply concerned about the lack of transparency" around the work, Zhang told the AP.

Doudna said that He met with her Monday to tell her of his work, and that she and others plan to let He speak at a conference Wednesday as originally planned.

"None of the reported work has gone through the peer review process," and the conference is aimed at hashing out important issues such as whether and when gene editing is appropriate, she said.

Harvard Medical School Dean Dr. George Daley said he worries about other scientists trying this in the absence of regulations or a ban.

"I would be concerned if this initial report opened the floodgates to broader practice," Daley said.

Notre Dame Law School Professor O. Carter Snead, a former presidential adviser on bioethics, called the report "deeply troubling, if true".

"No matter how well intentioned, this intervention is dangerous, unethical, and represents a perilous new moment in human history," he wrote in an email. "These children, and their children's children, have had their futures irrevocably changed without consent, ethical review or meaningful deliberation."

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