Too soon to create gene-edited babies, say scientists

'An Experiment on Human Beings': Outrage as Chinese Researcher Claims to Change Babies' DNA

A scientist has said that he is "proud" to have created the world's first genetically edited baby as he defended his work.

More than 100 scientists, mostly in China, said in an open letter on Tuesday the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to edit the genes of human embryos was risky and unjustified.

There is no independent confirmation of He's claim and he has not yet published in any scientific journal where it would be vetted by experts.

He Jiankui, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, addressed a packed hall of around 700 people attending the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong.

Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero sparked controversy previous year when he claimed to have conducted the world's first head transplant on a corpse at a Chinese hospital, the state-run Global Times reported at the time, though other scientists have called his claims overblown.

'An Experiment on Human Beings': Outrage as Chinese Researcher Claims to Change Babies' DNA
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In many countries the editing of human DNA is tightly controlled.

He has spoken at the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong for the first time about his work since the uproar. The twin girls, which are named Lulu and Nana, are reportedly healthy, but that has done little to silence He's critics. Nine couples, all of them with HIV-positive fathers, were claimed to have participated in He's gene-editing experiment.

"But if what he has done is to edit human embryos, and for them to be carried through to birth... there is a real risk of so-called off-target effects", he added. He released the video after MIT Technology Review reported on the existence of clinical trial documents indicating that researchers were recruiting potential parents for a gene-editing study of embryos that would then be implanted via in vitro fertilization.

Matthew Porteus, professor of paediatrics at Stanford University, said: "He's already at risk of becoming a pariah".

"I would hope that the global bodies that have stated quite firmly up until this point that we would not want this to happen would still stay firm regardless of someone going rogue", she said.

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While there are no laws or regulations in China forbidding the creation of genome-edited children, such practice is widely condemned by the worldwide scientific community.

Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, added that such DNA editing is "far too premature". Many researchers are interested in using the technology to eliminate or treat genetic diseases, as Business Insider has previously reported.

National and local health authorities in China announced investigations on Monday into He's research.

Additionally, Dr. He adamantly denies that his research and work in gene editing serves the goal of the infamous "designer baby" concept.

"The Pandora's Box has been opened, but we may still have a chance to close it before it is irreparable", the statement read.

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He showed data indicating that he had not detected unintended genetic changes caused by CRISPR/Cas-9, the gene-editing tool that he used - although it remains to be seen whether outside scientists will find the evidence convincing.

The Chinese Society for Cell Biology in a statement on Tuesday strongly condemned any application of gene editing on human embryos for reproductive purposes and said that it was against the law and medical ethics of China.

He chose the HIV virus because it has become a serious problem in China, with between 500,000 and 1.5 million people infected. "When you balance the minimal benefit in terms of protection against HIV, compared to increased chance of dying from a fairly common infection like the flu, I don't think that works out on balance". And earlier this year, Chinese scientists unveiled monkeys that were cloned using the same technique that produced Dolly the Sheep two decades ago.

When asked about the source of research funding, He said the study had started out with funding from SUST, but had later paid participants' medical expenses through his company. Details on the process, the specific mutations and analysis used to screen for potentially harmful "off-target" genomic changes were also presented today.

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