Scientist Who Edited Babies' Genomes Faces Widespread Criticism


The Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world's first genetically-edited babies revealed another woman in his study is possibly pregnant.

"We recommend an independent assessment to verify this claim and to ascertain whether the claimed DNA modifications have occurred", committee chairman Professor David Baltimore said, reading the statement on behalf of the group of scientists.

He's home institution, the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology (SUST) condemned his actions and announced it would cooperate fully with the official investigation.

He argued in his conference talk that the editing he did on the embryos of the newborn twin girls and on the third embryo-which, if successful, would confer resistance to HIV infection-is akin to a vaccine, the AP reports.

Conference leaders called for an independent investigation of the claim by He Jiankui of Shenzhen, who spoke to the group Wednesday as worldwide criticism of his claim mounted. Editing the genes of embryos is banned in many countries because DNA changes passed to future generations could have unanticipated effects on the entire gene pool.

On Wednesday Prof He spoke to an audience for the first time about his work since the uproar.

He told reporters that his team would follow up on the development and health conditions of the twins for at least 18 years and he had conducted numerous experiments using ape embryos before altering the genes of the twin girls. Nine couples, all of them with HIV-positive fathers, were claimed to have participated in He's gene-editing experiment.

Baltimore stressed he was speaking only on behalf of himself, adding that safety issues and "broad societal consensus" have not yet been worked out on the question of editing human embryos. The university also distanced itself from the research, saying it "seriously violates ethical and academic standards and regulations". At a summit in Hong Kong Wednesday, He Jiankui said his study is now on hold after worldwide condemnation. "I think there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of the lack of transparency". Zhang acknowledged that regulating this type of research would be hard but said it was important to come up with "a set of requirements for how to put forward a comprehensive and informative application for experimental medicine development". Other researchers are developing ways to gene-edit damaged cells and return them, repaired, into patients with sickle cell disease and other disorders.

Musunuru is a gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

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On Sunday, news broke that a Chinese scientist had apparently created the world's first gene-edited babies to protect them from contracting HIV.

The Chinese government also ordered an investigation into the matter.

Gene editing may be morally legitimate, DiCamillo said, when used for "a directly therapeutic objective for a particular patient in question and if we're sure we're going to limit whatever changes to this person".

"It would be really have the world looking at the first two genome-edited children because think of the pressure that's going to put them under", said Lovell-Badge.

'Some might even suggest this is a step towards eugenics, ' he said, referring to a movement that advocates improving the genetic composition of the human race'.

He chose the HIV virus because it has become a serious problem in China, with between 500,000 and 1.5 million people infected. Other scientists have lambasted the research as "deeply unethical" and "driven by hubris".

The Chinese researcher said he practiced editing mice, monkey and human embryos in the lab for several years and has applied for patents on his methods.

But genome editing could also more controversially used for genetic enhancements, such as ensuring children have a particular desirable characteristic such as a certain eye colour. He's gene-editing research involving twin babies born last month has sparked controversy.

When asked if he had thought about how the procedure would affect the girls in their dynamics with family, friends and romantic partners throughout their lives, he said: "I don't know how to answer this question".