“HONG KONG (AP) — A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life,” the Associated Press reported Monday.
He Jiankui of Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.
He said the parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and he would not say where they live or where the work was done.Associated Press
“Reaction to the claim was swift and harsh.”
The news is reported to have had caused “scientists and bioethics experts” to react with “shock, anger and alarm” as the news spread on Monday that Chinese He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China made claim that he “altered the DNA of twin girls born earlier this month to try to help them resist possible future infection with the AIDS virus – a dubious goal, ethically and scientifically.”
Gene editing is a way to rewrite DNA, the code of life, to try to supply a missing gene that is needed or disable one that is causing problems. It has only recently been tried in adults to treat serious diseases.
Editing eggs, sperm or embryos is different, because it makes permanent changes that can pass to future generations. Its risks are unknown, and leading scientists have called for a moratorium on its use except in lab studies until more is learned.Associated Press
He had not offered evidence or data to back up his claim, nor has there been any published work for other “experts” to review or independent confirmation when he revealed it “in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press,” on Monday at he beginning of the “gene editing conference” that is taking place in Hong Kong,
He also spoke to one of the organizers of the conference Jennifer Doudna, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the inventors “of a powerful but simple new tool called CRISPR-cas9 that reportedly was used on the Chinese babies during fertility treatments when they were conceived.”
After speaking with Doudna, the AP reported only that she said, “none of the reported work has gone through the peer review process,” but because “the conference is aimed at hashing out important issues such as whether and when gene editing is appropriate” she and other organizers were planning to allow He to speak as originally planned on Wednesday.
The other inventor of the CRISPR “tool” is Feng Zhang, a scientist at MIT’s Broad Institute, who was at the summit, told the AP he thought it was not only “risky,” but that he was “also deeply concerned about the lack of transparency.”
However, Michael Deem, a professor at Rice University, a John W. Cox Professor of Biochemical and Genetic Engineering Professor, Physics and Astronomy, & Founding Director, Program in Systems, Synthetic, and Physical Biology and leads what is called the “Deem Group,” claimed he “worked with He on the project in China.”
The AP reports that He Jiankui “studied at Rice and Stanford universities in the U.S. before returning to China” to work at the university there in Shenzhen and that He also owns “two genetics companies.”
Deem was He’s advisor while at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and also “holds what he called “a small stake” in – and is on the scientific advisory boards of – He’s two companies.”
Gene-editing to “deliberately alter the genes of human embryos” is illegal in the United States, and many other countries, because of the ramifications to DNA changes that can be passed on and also risks of harming other genes. It is denounced as “human experimentation.”
Rice University issued a statement saying they will investigate Deem’s involvement.
“Regardless of where it was conducted, this work as described in press reports violates scientific conduct guidelines and is inconsistent with ethical norms of the scientific community and Rice University,” the school said in a statement.AP
China does not outlaw gene-editing, but it does outlaw human cloning. Though He is still part of the Southern University of Science and Technology of China faculty, a spokesman said for He “he has been on leave from teaching since early this year and has a lab at the university.”
The university in China issued a statement saying that He’s work has “’seriously violated academic ethics and standards,’ and planned to investigate,” and that “the practice is opposed by many researchers,” in China.
A group of 122 Chinese scientists issued a statement calling Dr. He’s actions “crazy” and his claims “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”New York Times
According to online publication STAT,
The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which co-sponsored the first such summit in 2015 in Washington with its British and American counterparts, pulled out this time.
A year ago, after months of planning leading up to the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, China quietly bowed out, David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology, chairman of the meeting’s organizing committee, told STAT. The development has not previously been reported and was not announced by the organizers, who were hesitant to discuss the reasons.
“CAS did not want to have a 500-person meeting in [mainland] China and we needed that to accommodate the expected number of attendees,” Baltimore said. “So they dropped out.” At that point the Hong Kong Academy of Sciences offered a venue and sponsorship.STAT
Its absence, and that of officials from China’s science ministry, means a key player in genome editing will not be officially represented. Science in China — and how quickly its researchers are moving to correct inherited diseases by editing human embryos — is nevertheless expected to be a star attraction.
STAT goes on to say that this years conference is different from 2015 summit in that instead of being headed as a “gene-editing,” it is being called “genome editing,” adding that “the change reflects the power of technologies such as CRISPER, which in lab animals and human cells alter not only individual genes but multiple ones simultaneously, treating the entire genome like a bad manuscript awaiting the ministrations of a red-pencil-wielding editor.”
In the 2015 summit, the Chinese ministry claimed that while China has “strict regulations” in altering human embryos, “he could not guarantee that rogue labs and clinics were not conducting experiments they shouldn’t.”
On A Side Note (Opinion)
I didn’t get into all the specifics about what He is claiming to have done.
If you want a eyeopener into all that has been going on around the world under the radar, read the STAT piece. I came across that one researching about this conference/summit that goes on. I highly recommend reading that one if you read nothing else.
Here’s what the inventor said about this, “Few people understand that embryo editing is even a possibility, Doudna said. “My perception is that there are quite a large proportion of people who don’t know about this at all,” she said. “I worry that people outside the scientific community will be caught off guard.”
There are three different Associated Press articles. For further clarification they are:
Chinese researcher claims first gene-edited babies; By Marilynn Marchione; AP
Gene-edited baby claim by Chinese scientist sparks outrage; By Marilynn Marchione; AP [Recommended]
Q&A on scientist’s bombshell claim of gene-edited babies; By Lauran Neergaard and Malcolm Ritter; AP [Recommended]
I recommend reading the last two for a better and a little more in-depth. There is some redundancy, however, the second one has more information on the interview with He and what he claims to have done; and the third is an overview about the process/ethics.