China stops research into gene-editing after 'CRISPR baby'

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A prominent American scientist is warning against a backlash to the claim that a Chinese scientist has helped make the world's first gene-edited babies.

Prof He's university - the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen - said it was unaware of the research project and would launch an investigation.

A Chinese researcher says he's the first person to successfully "edit" the genes of babies before birth in a practice the United States bans as unsafe and unethical.

The technique carries the risk that altered DNA will warp other genes - potentially risky mutations that may then be passed down to future generations.

He's academic board said He had "seriously violated academic ethics and norms".

For six questions that remain regarding He's contentious claimed scientific breakthrough, including a look at He's next potential moves and the impact this could have on the genome-editing field as a whole, see a report from Nature.

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The researcher said he used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to alter a gene named CCR5 in embryos for seven couples during their fertility treatments; one pregnancy resulted.

After first dropping the bombshell in a video posted on the internet that he had engineered the birth of healthy twin girls through altered embryos to ensure they would not contract HIV, He Jiankui - who has been called China's Frankenstein - went silent for two days. Many scientists working in genetics say they believe such experimentation is risky. He's fairly convinced that the experiment was real, though the results have yet to be published in the open scientific literature.

The particular method used is common in lab research but not precise or controlled enough for embryos, said Columbia University cell biologist Dietrich Egli, who called it "essentially genome vandalism".

Jiankui's team performed "gene surgery" on the embryos created from their parents' sperm and eggs, in order to protect the children from the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, which causes AIDS. The objective of the edit was to remove the CCR5 gene, which helps enable many forms of the HIV virus to infect cells.

Embryo gene editing for HIV was chosen because it is a major health issue in China.

The scientist announced the alleged feat in an interview with the AP and to organizers of a gene editing conference in Hong Kong.

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"Grossly premature and deeply unethical", is how noted USA bioethicist Henry Greely of Stanford University characterized the claim.

He is facing intense pressure back home, with China's Ministry of Science and Technology investigating whether he has broken the law, and the country's scientific community joining in the global chorus of concern and condemnation.

CRISPR is cheap and easy to deploy, but scientists are still debating the ethics of using it in human beings.

Reports indicate that gene-edited twin girls have now been born.

After Mr He spoke, David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from the California Institute of Technology and a leader of the conference, said the scientist's work "would still be considered irresponsible" because it did not meet criteria many scientists agreed on several years ago before gene editing could be considered.

He urged: 'An worldwide treaty on embryo research is now an absolute priority to prevent this happening again'.

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In a YouTube video, released on Sunday, Dr He explained the rationale for the study and said he was willing to take the criticism on behalf of the families.

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