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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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Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. Follow Rachel on Twitter @Rachel_Lynn_A.

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  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 11/28/2018 01:42 pm

    We should anathematize any scientist who does not publicize his funding and methodology.  And I would not be surprised to discover that China is funding this research.

  • Steven Lemmel
    Posted: Thu, 11/29/2018 09:55 am

    Apart from the brohaha and comdemnation, this step was inevitable, as much as the atom bomb, in vitro fertilization or animal cloning were. Once a technology becomes avaliable, it is extremely difficult to prevent it's misuse.The Crispr/CAS9 gene editing technology holds much promise for good. We know the genetic origins of many disorders such as muscular dystrophy, metabolic diseases and Down's syndrome and it is conceivable that gene editing could eliminate them. At the same time. it is easy to see that this technology could be misapplied for all sorts of eugenic uses. Another risk with this technology is that a gene in a complex animal such as humans may have many functions and interact with numerous other genes. Often we don't know exactly what a certain gene's function is let alone it's overal role in development and metabolism. Altering, deleting or overexpressing one gene may have unexpected unknown long-term deleterious effects. Caution and strong ethical standards are needed, but in our diverse world, someone or some group or some nation will decide that the risks are worth the perceived benefits.

  • Laneygirl's picture
    Posted: Thu, 11/29/2018 11:07 am

    Many of us who follow God's ways wonder at what point will His patience with man run out?

    Let us not forget that the last time He brought destructive judgment on mankind was when unnatural creation of children was taking place. See Genesis 6.1-7