A group of leading scientists has declared that the world isn’t ready for gene-edited babies, following shock claims from a Chinese researcher that he modified the DNA of twin girls to make them resistant to infection with the AIDS virus.
Scientists gathered in Hong Kong this week for an international conference on gene editing, the ability to rewrite the code of life to try to correct or prevent diseases.
Many argued it was irresponsible to alter the genes of eggs, sperm or embryos except in lab research because not enough is known yet about its risks or safety.
The comments follow claims from controversial researcher Dr He Jiankui, who on Sunday announced he had created the world’s first genetically modified babies.
His remarks sparked outrage from the global scientific community, with some experts calling the work ‘monstrous’.
Researchers in Hong Kong echoed these concerns, saying it was still too soon to make permanent changes to DNA that can be inherited by future generations, as Dr He claims to have done.
It also emerged today that China’s government has halted research by Dr He’s team, stating that the ministry ‘strongly opposed’ Dr He’s efforts.
Scientists gathered in Hong Kong this week for an international conference on gene editing. Pictured is Nobel laureate Professor David Baltimore delivering a speech during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong
The conference was rocked by the Chinese researcher’s claim to have helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies, twin girls he said were born earlier this month.
Conference leaders called for an independent investigation of the claim by He Jiankui of Shenzhen, who spoke to the group Wednesday as international criticism of his claim mounted.
A statement issued Thursday by the 14-member conference leaders says the work was ‘irresponsible’, although the science holds promise for helping people in future.
There is no independent confirmation of what Dr He says he did.
He was scheduled to speak again at the conference on Thursday, but left Hong Kong early.
A statement sent through a spokesperson said: ‘I will remain in China, my home country, and cooperate fully with all inquiries about my work. My raw data will be made available for third party review.’
The comments follow claims from controversial researcher Dr He Jiankui, who on Sunday announced he had created the world’s first genetically modified babies. In this image, Dr He speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday
Several prominent scientists said the case showed a failure of the field to police itself and the need for stricter principles or regulations.
‘It’s not unreasonable to expect the scientific community’ to follow guidelines, said Professor David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from California Institute of Technology who led the panel.
There already are some rules that should have prevented what Dr He says he did, said Dr Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin lawyer and bioethicist and a conference organiser.
Several prominent scientists, including Professor Baltimore, said the case showed a failure of the field to police itself and the need for stricter principles or regulations
This graphic reveals how, theoretically, an embryo could be ‘edited’ using the powerful tool Crispr-Cas9 to defend humans against HIV infection
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE DOUBTS SURROUNDING DR HE’S CLAIMS?
Several scientists reviewed materials that Dr He provided to the AP and said tests so far are insufficient to say the editing worked or to rule out harm.
They also noted evidence that the editing was incomplete and that at least one twin appears to be a patchwork of cells with various changes.
‘It’s almost like not editing at all’ if only some of certain cells were altered, because HIV infection can still occur, famed Harvard University geneticist Professor George Church said.
Church and Dr Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert, questioned the decision to allow one of the embryos to be used in a pregnancy attempt, because the Chinese researchers said they knew in advance that both copies of the intended gene had not been altered.
‘In that child, there really was almost nothing to be gained in terms of protection against HIV and yet you’re exposing that child to all the unknown safety risks,’ Dr Musunuru said.
The use of that embryo suggests that the researchers’ ‘main emphasis was on testing editing rather than avoiding this disease,’ Church said.
Even if editing worked perfectly, people without normal CCR5 genes face higher risks of getting certain other viruses, such as West Nile, and of dying from the flu.
Since there are many ways to prevent HIV infection and it’s very treatable if it occurs, those other medical risks are a concern, Dr Musunuru said.
There also are questions about the way Dr He said he proceeded.
He gave official notice of his work long after he said he started it – on November 8, on a Chinese registry of clinical trials.
It’s unclear whether participants fully understood the purpose and potential risks and benefits.
For example, consent forms called the project an ‘AIDS vaccine development’ program.
The hospital linked to the controversial project denied approving the procedure and accused Dr He of forgery.
Dr He’s claims sparked outrage this week from the global scientific community, with some experts calling the work ‘monstrous’. Pictured is the scientist speaking Wednesday during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong
‘I think the failure was his, not the scientific community,’ Dr Charo said.
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 Dr Victor Dzau, president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, one of the conference sponsors.
‘Not following these guidelines would be an irresponsible act,’ he added.
Dr He revealed on Wednesday that a second gene-edited pregnancy was underway despite a wave of backlash following his first announcement.
The audience reacts as He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, Wednesday
He revealed the possible pregnancy while making his first public comments about his scandal-hit work at the same Hong Kong conference.
The second potential gene-edited pregnancy is at a very early stage and needs more time to see if it will last, Dr He said.
It also emerged yesterday that the private hospital where Dr He performed the work accused him of forging the paperwork needed to approve his experiments.
Harmonicare Women and Children’s Hospital in Shenzhen said it had asked the police to investigate.
He Jiankui speaks during an interview at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong province. The Chinese scientist claimed on Sunday to have helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies
Gene editing is banned in Britain, the US many other parts of the world, largely because its long-term effects on mental and physical health are poorly understood.
The technique carries the risk that altered DNA will warp other genes – potentially dangerous mutations that may be passed down to future generations.
Speaking Wednesday, Dr He, of Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said he was ‘proud’ of his work.
He added that ‘another potential pregnancy’ of a gene-edited embryo was in its early stages.
It also emerged today that China’s government has ordered a halt to work by a medical team that claimed to have helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies.
Vice Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping told state broadcaster CCTV Thursday that his ministry is strongly opposed to the efforts that reportedly produced twin girls born earlier this month.
Xu called the team’s actions illegal and unacceptable and said an investigation had been ordered.
Universities and government groups are also investigating.