Caixin
Nov 26, 2018 09:02 PM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

Baby Gene-Editing Breakthrough Claim Slammed

Chinese scientist He Jiankui is reflected in a glass panel as he works at a computer at a laboratory in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, on Oct. 10. Photo: IC
Chinese scientist He Jiankui is reflected in a glass panel as he works at a computer at a laboratory in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, on Oct. 10. Photo: IC

A Chinese-led research team that claims to have helped create the world’s first genetically edited human babies has been criticized for allegedly breaching medical ethics — and possibly the law.

The newborn twin girls, who the researchers say are the first produced by their project to bestow immunity to HIV on an individual by editing their DNA, had a father with the disease and a mother without it, according to an Associated Press report that cites research-team leader He Jiankui. He is affiliated with Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC) and also heads six companies in China, mostly in the genetics sector.

The university distanced itself from He in a statement Monday that said the researcher had been on unpaid leave since February, and that the school was unaware of the experiment. The academic board of SUSTC’s biology department has deemed that the project “seriously violated academic ethics and norms.”

Reached by phone, a representative of Shenzhen Hanhai Genetic Biology Technology Co. Ltd. — one of the companies He runs — refused to say if they were aware of the project, but told Caixin the experiment was not conducted on their premises.

There is no independent confirmation of the experiment’s success, and it has not been published in any academic journal. China’s state-run People’s Daily published an online article about it on Monday but later removed the story.

If confirmed, the feat would be the first of its kind, while also being ethically controversial and possibly illegal. Such gene editing is banned in the United States because DNA changes can be inherited, according to AP, but research of this nature is also banned by a Chinese regulation on reproductive technology, said Zhang Di, a bioethics researcher at Peking Union Medical College.

A two-page signed ethics-approval document that circulated online on Monday appeared to show the experiment was approved by administrators at Shenzhen HarMoniCare Women & Children’s Hospital. An employee of the hospital claimed the project wasn’t conducted there and that they didn’t know about the document.

The researchers sought to disable a gene called CCR5, which forms a protein doorway allowing HIV to penetrate into a cell, according to the original report. However, only one twin had both copies of their gene altered, while the other had just one altered. People with one copy of the gene can still contract HIV.

Experts said using gene-editing to make someone immune to HIV was unnecessary. In normal cases, HIV isn’t transmitted from HIV-positive fathers to their children. It could also create greater risks by changing other parts of one’s DNA, said a staff writer at the science and technology education community Guokr who uses the pseudonym Ent.

“Will you be responsible for the possible negative consequences for the two kids? Do the researchers have the right to make decisions for the two babies about their lives?” asked Yan Ning, professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, on her Weibo (link in Chinese).

Joyce Harper, a professor in genetics and human embryology from the Institute for Women’s Health at University College London said that the announcement made by the team was “premature, dangerous and irresponsible.”

“Before this procedure comes anywhere near clinical practice, we need years of work to show that meddling with the genome of the embryo is not going to cause harm to the future person,” she said.

Project leader He said he told the participants that embryo gene editing had never been tried before and carries risks, according to AP. “I believe this is going to help the families and their children,” he said, adding that it would be his own responsibility if the project caused unwanted side effects.

He Jiankui could not be reached for comment.

Contact reporter Coco Feng (renkefeng@caixin.com)

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