Scientist who claims to have created genetically-edited babies presents findings

Glen Mclaughlin
November 29, 2018

"Lulu and Nana were born normal and healthy", he told a rapt audience at a Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, referring to the twins by pseudonyms.

A Chinese doctor who claims to have engineered the world's first successful birth of genetically modified humans said he was "proud" of the historic feat, despite widespread backlash from the medical and scientific communities.

ASSOCIATED PRESS He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, center, speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.

"First, I must apologize that this result was leaked unexpectedly", He told some 700 attendees. Natural mutations to the gene, known as CCR5, affect up to 10% of the populations in northern European countries and can also confer immunity to HIV, the scientist said.

At the conference in Hong Kong, He defended himself against a slew of incredulous questions.

On Monday, more than 120 scholars from prestigious universities and institutes from China and overseas such as Tsinghua University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology strongly condemned the research in a signed statement, saying it lacks effective ethics oversight and amounts to human experiments.

In the United Kingdom and many other countries it is illegal to create genetically modified babies, and scientists in the field have reached a broad consensus that it would be deeply unethical to try.

"Fundamentally, I don't think genome editing is ready to be applied in embryos for implantation purposes". He said he would provide insurance for the children created through the project.

"Certainly this is something that the genetics world all thought would possibly happen one day, but I think we were hoping it would happen with a lot more regulation", said Ahmed, a genetic counsellor at a private DNA testing lab in Toronto.

More than 120 Chinese scientists called the experiment "crazy" in a letter, adding that it dealt a huge blow to the global reputation of Chinese science.

Alta Charo, a highly respected University of Wisconsin bioethicist who helped organize the summit, issued an even harsher critique of He's work, calling it "misguided, premature, unnecessary and largely useless". "We set out stringent criteria that would need to be met" to justify embryo editing, he said. "In fact there is not only very little chance these babies would be in need of a benefit, given their low risk, but there is no way to evaluate if this indeed conferred any benefit".

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Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicine for MIT Technology Review - the publication which first highlighted the trial on Sunday - said He's talk was "ethically a half-baked mess".

"At this point in time, this is considered unethical", said Goodman.

"We just saw it on the internet".

On Tuesday, the Beijing News reported that He's team had been conducting experiments involving 400 human embryos with funding from the Southern University of Science and Technology.

But Daley argued that a consensus was a emerging that "if we can solve the scientific challenges, it may be a moral imperative that it should be permitted". He's study, specifically in addressing HIV via gene editing, safe-sex was recommended as a preventative along with current medical treatments in the case of infection by the director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford.

"The lack of transparency and disregard for risk are deeply concerning", Doudna said.

"Gene surgery is another IVF advancement and is only meant to help a small number of families", said Dr. He. "I knew where he was heading", Hurlbut said.

Mr He says he was able to neutralise a gene called CCR5, which forms a protein doorway that enables HIV to enter a cell. Scientists have long searched for ways to block this pathway to protect people from HIV. "The choice of the diseases that we heard discussions about earlier today are much more pressing" than trying to prevent HIV infection this way, Baltimore said.

Other concerns include the desire some people may have to create "designer babies", created with non-medical goals such as increased IQ or a specific eye color.

Asked for his comment on the university's statement, He said he had been on voluntary leave for several years to focus on his research, without specifying dates.

Other reports by MaliBehiribAe

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