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Rogue science

Science | China says He Jiankui deliberately skirted the law with gene-editing experiment
by Julie Borg
Posted 1/24/19, 03:59 pm

The Chinese scientist who produced the first genetically altered babies sidestepped regulations, dodged supervision, and forged fake ethical review documents, investigators said this week. The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen fired physicist He Jiankui after Chinese government officials disclosed on Monday the preliminary findings of their investigation into his controversial experiment, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Investigators said He raised funds and organized a research team outside of his university lab to edit the genes of human embryos for the purpose of reproduction, a scientific act explicitly banned in China. He is accused of recruiting eight couples in which the men tested positive for HIV. Carriers of HIV are ineligible for in vitro fertilization in China, but He used healthy substitutes to submit required blood testing. Then, the report said, He asked researchers to edit genes on the embryos and implant them into the female volunteers. Two of the women became pregnant: One gave birth to twin girls, and the other remains pregnant. One couple quit in the middle of the experiment, and the other five did not conceive.

“This behavior seriously violates ethics and the integrity of scientific research, is in serious violation of relevant national regulations and creates a pernicious influence at home and abroad,” the report from the Guangdong province investigators said.

He said he edited the genes of the babies to make them resistant to HIV, but the investigators concluded that he acted in pursuit of personal fame and gain. Both Christian and secular scientists and ethicists around the globe condemned the experiment. Experts said much safer ways exist to protect babies from contracting HIV. They further noted that gene editing, which produces genetic mutations that all future generations can inherit, can have unintended, serious, and irreversible consequences.

The investigators said He, and other relevant personnel and organizations, will receive punishment, the exact nature of which remains unclear. Officials will transport those suspected of committing crimes to the public security department, according to the report, which also assured that the genetically altered twin girls, named Lulu and Nana, and the pregnant volunteer will receive medical observation and follow-up visits.

Whatever the outcome of the continuing investigation, this ordeal serves as a long-overdue wake-up call to the scientific community about the need to rein in our burgeoning ability to permanently change the human race. William Hurlbut, a Stanford University bioethicist who has discussed He’s work with him, said scientists are under pressure from international competition and the push for technological advances.

“We are entering an era of promise and peril with our rapid advances in biomedicine,” Hurlbut told me. “We need to slow down and, as a global civilization, think together more carefully about where we are heading.”

China’s Ministry of Science and Technology pledged to “work with relevant departments to jointly improve relevant laws and regulations and improve the scientific research ethics review system,” Science magazine reported.

Associated Press/Photo by Mark Lennihan Associated Press/Photo by Mark Lennihan Prescription oxycodone pills

Opioids and birth defects

Rates of opioid use more than quadrupled in the United States between 1999 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now a study published last week by researchers at the agency suggests a possible link between prescription opioid use and gastroschisis, a birth defect in which a hole in the abdominal wall results in the intestines hanging outside the body.

Doctors see about 1,800 cases of gastroschisis per year in the United States, but that figure is mysteriously rising. According to the research, in the 20 states studied, cases of the birth defect occurred 60 percent more often in counties with the highest opioid prescription rates.

The paper, which did not note whether the mothers of the affected babies actually used opioids, followed earlier research that found a higher risk of birth defects when pregnant women took painkillers such as oxycodone just before becoming pregnant or early in the pregnancy.

The study does not prove that opioid use causes birth defects, but “the report sounds an early alarm for the need to increase our public health surveillance on the full range of fetal, infant, and childhood outcomes potentially related to these exposures,” CDC Director Robert Redfield and two of the study’s authors wrote in a statement. —J.B.

iStock/Mny-Jhee iStock/Mny-Jhee

Blast from the past

A house cat in Wyoming who frequently wandered outdoors recently became the third feline in the state in the past six months to be diagnosed with bubonic plague, the Wyoming Department of Health said in a statement.

History classes still teach children about the plaque that wiped out up to 50 percent of the European population in the 14th century, but many don’t know that an average of seven people still contract the disease per year in the United States, usually in rural areas of Western states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The plague typically spreads through fleas that bite infected mammals. Symptoms include fever, headache, chills, weakness, and tender and swollen lymph nodes. Antibiotics are usually effective, but untreated plague can spread to the blood or the lungs and quickly become fatal.

Until 1941, when antibiotics came into widespread use, 66 percent of people who contracted the disease died, but that figure has since fallen to 11 percent. —J.B.

Associated Press/Photo by Mario Quadros (file) Associated Press/Photo by Mario Quadros (file) A vampire bat

Nature’s cure

Researchers have found a compound in the venom of vampire bats that could treat a variety of medical conditions, including hypertension, heart failure, kidney diseases, and burns.

An international team of researchers, led by ones at the University of Queensland in Australia, found that the venom contains a compound that relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure with fewer side effects than traditional medications.

“This could potentially help doctors in the treatment of a range of disorders featuring heightened pressure in small blood vessels, or may be able to improve blood flow to damaged or transplanted tissue such as skin grafts,” researcher Bryan Fry said in a statement.

But development of a drug may take a while. The researchers can no longer access venom specimens from their original field site in Mexico because drug traffickers have overtaken the area. The scientists are looking for safer sites in which to work. —J.B.

First plant life on moon dies

Just nine days after China announced that the cotton seeds inside a special container on their lunar lander had sprouted, the scientists were forced to remotely shut down power and end the experiment, CNN reported.

When the Chinese Chang’e 4 probe landed on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, it carried a receptacle with dirt, nutrients, silkworm eggs, and the seeds of cotton, rapeseed, potato, and rockcress plants. Scientists hoped to create a tiny living ecosystem to test how plant life would react to the moon’s high-radiation, low-gravity environment. The experiment was an early step toward cultivating food on the lunar surface for future colonization of the moon, but it failed when temperatures inside the container became too hot to nurture life. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She reports on science and intelligent design for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.

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