China Stops Work on Gene-Edited Babies

Spencer Underwood
December 3, 2018

"We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being". "I don't think the police will be involved, but the ministries will discipline him". The tool, called CRISPR-cas9, makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that's causing problems. Editing sperm, eggs or embryos is different - the changes can be inherited. In the U.S., the medical procedure is strictly limited to laboratory research. Julian Savulescu, for example, has gone so far as to argue that, if it were safe and not too costly, we would even have an obligation to edit our children's genes.

The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He holds an associate professorship, said it had been unaware of the research project and that He had been on leave without pay since February. "I hope this is a wake up call for everybody to recognize that while this technology is incredibly exciting, this is and important moment where we need to grapple with responsibility of managing this technology going forward". HIV is not an appropriate candidate because there are already safe ways to prevent transmission, and if contracted it can be kept under control with medications, researchers said.

Au also questioned whether it was ethical for He's test subjects to be recruited by an HIV/Aids advocacy group. Its leader, known by the pseudonym "Bai Hua", told the AP that it's not uncommon for people with HIV to lose jobs or have trouble getting medical care if their infections are revealed. The survey found that over 70 percent of the Chinese public was supportive of using gene editing for HIV prevention. He added that, despite the controversies, gene surgery should "remain a technology for healing".

When the embryos were 3 to 5 days old, a few cells were removed and checked for editing.

Lovell-Badge said Thursday that the organizers had felt it was "important to give He a platform to present what he had done". He said he then implanted two of those embryos into the mother, and the twins were born this fall. People with one copy of the gene can still get HIV, although some very limited research suggests their health might decline more slowly once they do.

Since then several scientists have reviewed the material that He Jiankui provided to the AP, tests so far are suggested to be insufficient to say editing worked to rule out harm, noting evidence of editing being incomplete, and at least one twin appears to be a patchwork of cells with various changes, nearly as if not editing at all.

"Of course the work occurred", Deem said.

The Chinese Society for Cell Biology 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. "You know the accusation now is that you've broken the law".

The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, where He spoke, called clinical use of the techniques "irresponsible at this time". Removing it increases the risk of susceptibility for other diseases such as the West Nile virus and influenza. He later said more such babies may be on the way.

Following He's revelations, Chinese authorities denounced his work and ordered a probe into his trials.

This raises a serious concern of undue inducement: paying research participants such a large sum that it distorts their assessment of the risks and benefits.

The case shows "there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community" and said the conference committee would meet and issue a statement on Thursday about the future of the field, Mr Baltimore added.

Deem was He's adviser at Rice for more than three years and published three papers with He. But He's study offered a particularly enticing carrot - free IVF treatment and supportive care, along with a daily allowance and insurance coverage during the treatment and pregnancy. He also raised the possibility of a third child being born, after announcing that a separate woman was pregnant at an early stage with a modified embryo.

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