China Stops Work on Gene-Edited Babies

Simon Moss
December 2, 2018

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

"Even if the modifications are verified, the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform with worldwide norms", the organising committee of the Second global Summit on Human Genome Editing, being held in Hong Kong this week, said in a statement released by email and posted online.

"I think all of us are wondering about the role of Michael Deem", Collins told STAT, "who by his description was present at the consenting of couples that took part in this gene-editing enterprise". He said there had been a second implantation in an early stage. However, his work has not been verified.

China on Thursday ordered to stop the work that led to the birth of gene-edited twins.

Southern University of Science and Technology, where He is an associate professor and is said to have conducted the research without the full knowledge of the university, has sealed off his lab and suspended him pending an investigation. He said he initially paid for the research himself, then later from his university funding.

Collins said the NIH was taking preliminary steps to investigate a Rice University researcher who served as He's graduate advisor when He pursued graduate study at the Houston university and who has acknowledged participating in his protege's research.

The twin girls, known by the pseudonyms Lulu and Nana, were healthy and at home with their parents, He said.

Eight volunteer couples - HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers - signed up to He's trial, with one dropping out before it was put on hold.

Prof He also said that the study had been submitted to a scientific journal for review, though he did not name the journal.

Organisers of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing denounced He's "unexpected and deeply disturbing" claim that human embryos had been edited and implanted, and called for closer supervision of the field at the conclusion of the conference Thursday.

Chinese Scientist Claims He's Created World's First Gene-Edited Babies - D-brief

"I must apologize that this result was leaked unexpectedly", he added.

Why is it this controversial?

A medical team's quest to edit the genes of babies has been stopped by the Chinese government.

It works by using "molecular scissors" to alter a very specific strand of DNA - either cutting it out, replacing it or tweaking it. It's believed that altering DNA before or during conception is risky because the changes could be inherited or harm other genes.

He's claims has set off a firestorm of skepticism and criticism.

The Genetics Society of China and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research has also condemned He's research calling it "extreme irresponsibility, both scientifically and ethically". "If true, this experiment is monstrous", he told Reuters.

For years, leading scientists have avoided advocating a ban on gene-editing technology for human reproduction, instead favoring a cautionary approach that such research should not proceed until certain conditions are met.

During a question and answer session, He was asked if there was another viable pregnancy with genome editing from his clinical trials.

Feng Zhang of the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute said in a statement provided to MIT Technology Review that he was "in favor of a moratorium on implantation of edited embryos".

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