Chinese bioethics expert slams scientist who claims gene-editing coup

Chinese bioethics expert slams scientist who claims gene-editing coup

Chinese scientist He Jiankui has claimed to have gene-edited twin baby girls.

The CRISPR tool is a recently developed tool for adding necessary genes or disabling harmful ones to treat diseases in adults, though the USA only allows it to be used in lab research. The embryos were then implanted into the mother who gave birth to Lulu and Nana earlier this month.

"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 these cases involved gene editing of so-called somatic cells that are not passed on to the patient's children.

The university added that He's research utilizing altered DNA was "conducted outside of the campus and was not reported to the University nor the Department".

For such couples, it is possible to safely conceive an HIV-negative child using robust IVF procedures. "Performing gene surgery is only permissible when the risks of the procedure are outweighed by a serious medical need". An investor relations representative for Harmonicare Medical said it is investigating the researcher's claims when reached by telephone Tuesday.

Pablo Tebas, a clinical researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who led a small study that crippled CCR5 in HIV-infected adults using what's known as zinc finger technology, similarly denounced the embryo adjustment. It is at this point that the gene editing was carried out. Several days later, the cells of the modified embryos were checked for signs of DNA editing. All together, the researchers edited 16 of 22 embryos and 11 were used in six pregnancy attempts.

One problem with CRISPR editing is that it sometimes introduces mutations far from the gene at which it is aimed at correcting. The technology also carries the risk of affecting other genes unintentionally. This guy claims that he was able to "edit" the children so they won't be susceptible to HIV transmission, which sounds great, but we're still in the infancy of genetic research.

Speaking to the AP, Dr Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert, said in this particular child, "there really was nearly nothing to be gained in terms of protection against HIV and yet you're exposing that child to all the unknown safety risks", adding that the entire enterprise is "unconscionable" and "an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible".

Julian Savulescu, a medical ethics expert at Britain's University of Oxford, agreed. He revealed it Monday, Nov. 26, in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an global conference on gene editing.

He also expressed outrage that the babies had been exposed to unnecessary risks.

If that's not enough, this story gets even murkier.

He's interview with The Associated Press came after a report was published by the MIT Technology Review discussing He and his team's efforts at the Southern University of Science and Technology to create children that are resistant to HIV. It's not clear if the participants understood the true nature of the experiment, which was described as an "AIDS vaccine development" program.

Separately on Monday, the Southern University of Science and Technology, the Hong Kong school that He Jiankui's affiliated with, confirmed in a statement that the researcher is on "no-paid leave" through January 2021. He, who owns two genetics companies in China, was reportedly assisted by USA scientist Michael Deem, who was an advisor to He when they worked together at Rice University in Houston, in the U.S. state of Texas. The contest between Western and Chinese companies to develop powerful AI systems has been likened to the Cold War arms race, due both to the speed of back-and-forth developments and what technologists like Tesla Inc founder Elon Musk warn could be devastating consequences for miscalculation. "This is not something for a scientist on their own, or even a group of scientists to decide", Baylis, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told CTV News.

The report that an embryo with a known failure in the editing process was transferred, suggesting that they were actually interested in testing the safety/efficacy of the technology and not the genetic resistance to HIV for the patients/babies.

"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, not to mention that knocking out of CCR5 will likely render a person much more susceptible for West Nile Virus", said Feng Zhang, a Broad core institute member, in a statement. As such, these girls may go down in history as the first enhanced humans produced by gene-editing.

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