Claim of First Gene-Edited Babies Triggers Investigation


A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies.

He Jiankui, a researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, has claimed to have produced the first genetically modified human babies, twin girls. The scientist claimed he altered seven couples' embryos during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting.

When the twin girls, called Lulu and Nana to protect their privacy, were born, the researchers sequenced the girls' whole genomes again.

"Although I appreciate the global threat posed by HIV, at this stage, the risks of editing embryos to knock out CCR5 seem to outweigh the potential benefits", said a statement by Feng Zhang, a core member of the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard and one of the first to harness the power of CRISPR-Cas9.

As experts cast doubt over the claimed breakthrough and others decried it as a modern form of eugenics, China's National Health Commission ordered an "immediate investigation" into the case, the official Xinhua news agency reported early Tuesday (Nov 27), citing a statement on the NHC's website.

"Shenzhen HarMoniCare Hospital will invite public-security organisations to participate in the investigations and pursue the legal responsibilities of the relevant individuals", Harmonicare said in the statement. Also: "We will publish our full data soon".

On Monday, more than 100 mostly Chinese scientists signed a petition calling for greater oversight by their country on gene-editing experiments, while Southern University said it planned to investigate He's claim, saying the work "seriously violated academic ethics and standards". He did not report to the school or the department of biology.

But his university said it was a "serious violation of academic ethics and standards" and scientists around the world condemned it as monstrous and risky.

Annas also faulted He for conducting his research on "twins instead of one baby" and said scientists should "never endanger two children with a first of its kind experiment-but should do one and not add others until safety (and efficacy) are confirmed in the first".

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Scientists outside of China have been equally critical of He's work warning that modifying healthy embryos in children was irresponsible.

"Missing from the video is the fact that edits were made to embryos that do NOT have HIV". For example, we don't know how changing a human's genome can affect immunity to other diseases for future generations.

"The project completely ignored the principles of biomedical ethics, conducting experiments on humans without proving it's safe", said Qiu Zilong, a neuroscience researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (中国科学) in Shanghai who wrote the letter.

But according to reports in the People's Daily, He said he would display results of the twins' blood from their umbilical cord at the Hong Kong seminar to prove the experiment was a success.

Qiu Renzong, former vice president of the Chinese health ministry's ethics committee, accused He of obtaining a "fraudulent" ethics review by going to another hospital for review as opposed to obtaining approval from his own university, adding he was destroying the reputation of China's scientists.

"If true, this experiment is monstrous", he said. "That should be banned", He said in one of the videos.

"I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology", he says in one of the videos.

Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of genome editing from the University of California, Berkeley, said that the experiment appeared to be a "clear break" from the cautious and transparent approach recommended by global leaders. "There are still technical hurdles we have to solve", he said. Its risks are unknown, and leading scientists have called for a moratorium on its use except in lab studies until more is learned.

By editing the DNA of human embryos, scientists change not just the genes in a single person, but all their potential offspring - in effect, altering the human species. The study recruited couples with an HIV-positive husband and HIV-negative wife. Although China has no laws explicitly banning gene editing in babies, using the procedure does violate guidelines published by China's health ministry in 2003, and goes against worldwide guidelines agreed to at a summit on the issue in 2015.