Too soon to create gene-edited babies, say scientists

He Jiankui

He Jiankui, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, addressed about 700 people attending the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong on Wednesday.

The China government in retaliation to worldwide scientific furore has ordered a "thorough investigation" into the project and has stopped further work.

The girls had their genes edited so they could resist being infected with HIV, he said.

The presidents of the US National Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Medicine said the work "clearly demonstrates the need for us to develop more specific standards and principles that can be agreed upon by the worldwide scientific community". The leader of the conference called the experiment "irresponsible" and evidence that the scientific community had failed to regulate itself to prevent premature efforts to alter DNA. It's believed that altering DNA before or during conception is risky because the changes could be inherited or harm other genes. He made the stunning revelation that a mother had given birth to Lulu and Nana, twin girls whose genes had been edited to make them resistant to HIV. "We don't know. He said he confirmed that essentially they'd done the hormone test for whether or not the woman was pregnant".

CRISPR-Cas9 allows scientists to essentially cut and paste DNA, raising hope of genetic fixes for disease.

"Three scientists were disciplined, they were dismissed from their positions, and they could not apply for grants over a certain period of time, so [He's case] may be similar to this", Qiu told Al Jazeera.

What he did share at the conference on Hong Kong has led some to question the success and the safety of his experiment, though it's hard to really determine what happened or how well it worked without a full set of data from He.

Too soon to create gene-edited babies, say scientists
Too soon to create gene-edited babies, say scientists

There is no independent confirmation of what Mr He says he did.

Several groups have already expressed their criticism and opinion about the issue, including the conference where He claimed to have edited the genes of twins. "I personally don't think it was medically necessary".

Scores of scientists - including numerous top genetics experts gathered in Hong Kong - have called He's conduct unethical. 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.

"If the modifications are verified, the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform with global norms", the statement reads.

Before He's talk, Dr. George Daley, Harvard Medical School's dean and one of the conference organizers, warned against a backlash to gene editing because of He's experiment.

"I think all of us are wondering about the role of Michael Deem", Collins told STAT, "who by his description was present at the consenting of couples that took part in this gene-editing enterprise".

Robin Lovell-Badge, a professor of genetics and embryology at the Francis Crick Institute in London who moderated the session, asked a question that he said was on many attendees' minds. Investigations were opened into He's work by China's Southern University of Science and Technology, which has said the university was not informed of the experiment.

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