Thursday, 13 December, 2018

China Orders Halt to Research in Gene Editing

'An Experiment on Human Beings': Outrage as Chinese Researcher Claims to Change Babies' DNA Chinese claim to have created world’s first genetically modified baby
Elijah Vega | 01 December, 2018, 06:23

Leading genomic scientists from around the world called for an immediate halt to any clinical use of gene-editing in human embryos and sharply reprimanded a Chinese researcher who conducted a secretive experiment that he says produced the world's first genetically edited babies.

China's response to the controversy came the same week scientists convened in Hong Kong for an global summit on gene editing.

Prof He announced that he had altered the DNA of embryos - twin girls known as Lula and Nana - to prevent them from contracting HIV. He was speaking at a Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong.

Prof He also explained that eight couples - comprised of HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers - had signed up voluntarily for the experiment. Participants were reportedly told the study was being financed by "state funds", which meant the gene-editing service could be offered "free of charge". Couples decided whether to edit or unedit embryos for pregnancy attempts, 16 of 22 embryos were edited with 11 embryos being used in 6 implant attempts before the twin pregnancy was achieved.

He said there had been "another potential pregnancy" involving a second couple, but it is unclear whether that pregnancy is still ongoing.

Gene editing for reproductive purposes might be considered in the future, "but only when there is compelling medical need", with clear understanding of risks and benefits, and certain other conditions, said Victor Dzau, president of the US National Academy of Medicine.

The academy said it hopes the babies would grow up happy and healthy, both physically and psychologically, with "the most care possible that can be provided by society". As ISSCR and a number of other organizations have previously stated, the use of nuclear genome editing technologies, such as CRISPR, during fertility treatment is premature and should not be attempted at this time.

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The China Association for Science and Technology said it will disqualify He's candidacy for an award for young scientists as it has "zero tolerance" for breaches of scientific ethics and norms. This kind of work is now banned in many countries as the DNA changes can pass to future generations and possibly risks harming other genes.

The National Health Commission has said Prof He's work "violates China's laws, regulations and ethical standards" and has said that investigations have been initiated.

He's filing to a Chinese clinical trials database indicates that a hospital did an ethical review of the project, but the hospital involved denied that its ethics review committee ever met to discuss the work.

The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen said earlier in the week he had been on unpaid leave since February, and it would be investigating the claims. He was funding his own research.

In an open letter, more than 300 Chinese scientists raised 10 questions for He and his team related to safety, effectiveness and goal of the research, and whether he has concealed other related experiments from the public, China Daily reported.

The science and technology ministry "firmly opposes" the experiment and "has already demanded that the relevant organisation suspend the scientific activities of relevant personnel", Xu added. A spokesperson sent AP a statement credited to He that read, "I will remain in China, my home country, and cooperate fully with all inquiries about my work".

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