A Chinese scientist's claim that he created the world's first genetically-edited babies has shone a spotlight on what critics say are lax regulatory controls and ethical standards behind a series of headline-grabbing biomedical breakthroughs in China.
This announcement also risks undermining the very careful research being undertaken globally to investigate the safety and future potential uses of genome editing to help avoid children being born with severe, life-limiting diseases. "Science operates under a social licence - scientists work within limits defined by broader community concerns", said Darren Saunders, associate professor in the school of medical sciences at the University of New South Wales, in an emailed statement.
Jiankui He, the Chinese scientist who claims to have edited the genes of twin babies, spoke publicly about his research for the first time today (Nov. 28) in Hong Kong, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing.
He told the AP he felt a strong responsibility "not just to make a first, but also to make an example" for future research.
The case has damaged China's global reputation in the field, said the Chinese Union of Life Science Societies.
Without commenting directly on He's controversially claimed work, Baltimore said: "It is unfortunate that his work has not yet been peer-reviewed, and so there is not an independent analysis offered by experts". Such experimentation is illegal in the US and some other nations. The scientist revealed the project Monday to the organizers of an worldwide conference that will begin Tuesday in Hong Kong and previously to the AP in exclusive interviews. "It risks creating a new, genetically modified elite ... who can't get sick but pass it on to other people".
Leading researchers called Mr.
Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said: "Genetic editing technology is far from mature and could have unforeseen consequences for the subjects". The problem that many have with what He has done is that offspring down the road can inherit genetic modifications made to sperm, eggs, or embryos.
"The application of editing here was not for that objective", he told The Times. He says he began the work in 2017, but he only gave notice of it earlier this month on a Chinese registry of clinical trials.
"This is a truly unacceptable development", said Jennifer Doudna, a University of California-Berkeley scientist and one of the inventors of the CRISPR gene-editing tool that He said he used.
But according to reports in the People's Daily, He said he would display results of the twins' blood from their umbilical cord at the Hong Kong seminar to prove the experiment was a success. He said in the video.
According to Reuters, Hong Kong-listed Harmonicare Medical Holdings has issued a statement saying the signatures on the form posted online are suspected of having been forged and that "no relevant meeting of the Medical Ethics Committee of the hospital, in fact, took place".
Robin Lovell-Badge, group leader and head of the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute, said "gene editing is not something to be scared about", and he doesn't think what He has done will affect a human's core genome.
Knocking out CCR5 will likely render a person more susceptible to West Nile Virus, he said.
What's the reaction from other scientists?
On Sunday He, who was educated at Stanford University, announced in a YouTube video he had used CRISPR, a technique which allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision, to modify the twins' DNA. The experiment showed that someday it might be possible to deliberately endow human DNA with this desirable mutation-the key word being "someday". In China, human cloning is illegal, but gene editing isn't specifically against the law.
The commission has started an ethics investigation and will release the results to the public, it said. "I suggest that they should be punished", he added. All research conducted at SUSTech is required to abide by laws and regulations, and comply with worldwide academic ethics and codes of conduct.