Scientist hints at another gene-edited baby

Spencer Underwood
November 30, 2018

A Chinese scientist who stoked criticism over his claim that he had created the world's first genetically-edited babies faced mounting pressure Thursday as China ordered a halt to his scientific activities and warned he may have broken the law.

The researcher, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claimed to have altered the DNA of the twins to try to make them resistant to infection with HIV - a precursor to the AIDS virus - an action that he said he was "proud" of. In the video, He declined further comment until presenting his findings to a bustling auditorium filled with journalists and camera crews at a Hong Kong scientific conference on Wednesday, after fallout and global outrage over what some have called a "designer baby" experiment. He's claims are yet to be verified and he didn't identify the subjects of his experiment.

He, according to Reuters, also shrugged off concerns that the research was conducted in secrecy, explaining that he had engaged the scientific community over the past three years.

It was unclear whether the pregnancy had ended or not. The hospital claims that signatures on the medical ethics forms were forged, while his university and the Chinese authorities are both investigating the ethics. In the United Kingdom, editing of embryos may be permitted for research purposes with strict regulatory approval.

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". "I don't think it is credible that it is for a medical need".

He said his study had been submitted to a scientific journal for review, though he did not name the journal.

The organisers of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, where Dr He was speaking yesterday, also said they had not known about his work. A senior Chinese government official has said his work is unlawful.

The scientist had told a packed biomedical conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday he was "proud" to have successfully altered the DNA of the twins. He added that using technology to help people with genetic diseases is "compassion".

Hurlbut, who served on the U.S. president's council on bioethics, said that while he knew that He was "heading in this direction", he didn't know the fullscale of the project or that it involved implanted embryos.

"I couldn't guarantee to you that he did what he claimed", she said.

Immediately after his presentation, David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate who led the conference's organising committee, told the audience that what He had done "would still be considered irresponsible".

Conference moderator Robin Lovell-Badge said Dr He's trial was a "backward step" for the science industry, but described the babies' birth as "momentous" nonetheless.

"Not following these guidelines would be an irresponsible act", he added.

Southern University of Science and Technology, Shenzhen, where He Jiankui works, has also distanced itself from Jiankui's research.

Those accusations aside, He's project appears to be the work of an unsupervised lab that took great pains to avoid proper channels, such as failing to file the clinical trial to the country's registry until early November, which was around the same time the twin girls were born.

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