Chinese scientist condemned for gene editing human embryos
by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 11/28/18, 01:15 pm
A Chinese researcher continues to alarm the scientific and bioethics community with claims of being the first in the world to use gene editing in human embryos. He Jiankui of Shenzhen said he used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to alter the DNA of twin girls, born earlier this month, to be resistant to HIV. He appeared Wednesday at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, where he made his first public statements about his controversial and secretive work and revealed that a second pregnancy involving a gene-edited baby was in its very early stages but needed more time to see if it would last.
Altering DNA in a human embryo that will be implanted in the womb is banned in many countries, including the United States, because the changes can be inherited and might harm other genes. Meanwhile, regulators and scientists from around the world are condemning He’s actions, calling his experiment unethical and unscientific.
“This is a truly unacceptable development,” Jennifer Doudna, a University of California, Berkeley, scientist and one of the inventors of CRISPR gene-editing technology, said Wednesday. “I’m grateful that he appeared today, but I don’t think that we heard answers. We still need to understand the motivation for this.”
He has not published his experiment in any peer-reviewed media, though at the conference he said he submitted the study to a scientific journal. But He failed or refused to answer questions about his procedures and who was funding his research.
William Hurlbut, a bioethicist at Stanford University, where He did postdoctoral research, said he had talked with He during the past two years about the ethics of gene editing. “I knew his early work,” Hurlbut said. “I knew where he was heading.” When he saw He four or five weeks ago, He did not reveal that he had tried or achieved pregnancy with edited embryos but Hurlbut said he “strongly suspected” it. “I disagree with the notion of stepping out of the general consensus of the scientific community,” Hurlbut said, adding that if the science is not considered ready or safe enough yet, “it’s going to create misunderstanding, discordance and distrust.”
China’s National Health Commission has ordered officials in Guangdong province to investigate He’s work, and his employer, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen also is conducting an investigation.
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