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What you need to know about China claim of gene-edited babies

28 November 2018

"While this research has yet to be subject to peer scrutiny-which in itself is problematic-it looks like the researcher involved wanted to be the first rather than waiting to be safe".

He Jiankui defended what he claimed to have achieved, saying he had performed the gene editing to help protect the babies from future infection with the AIDS virus. The gene modification was done with the help of CRISPR, a gene-editing tool that is cheap and easy to use.

Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing is now being held in Hong Kong. He said the twins were born a few weeks ago, though the births have yet to be verified. She said Mr. He's work represents insubordination of the guidelines put forth by the scientific community working in genetics.

"The mainland is very protective of scientists, if you make some small mistake, that's the end of it, there's no punishment". How can we be sure this powerful technology will benefit humankind? "At that point, we might be ready to apply it to embryos".

"If this is a false report, it is scientific misconduct and deeply irresponsible", Robert Winston, emeritus professor of fertility studies and professor of science and society at Imperial College London, tells BBC News. This is roughly in line with a recent Pew poll in the United States that found 60 percent of Americans support using gene editing on babies to reduce lifetime risk of contracting certain diseases.

The controversial experiment, publicised through the media and videos posted online by He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China, was criticised by many scientists worldwide as premature and called "rogue human experimentation".

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.

The goal of the editing was to confer resistance to HIV by modifying the CCR5 gene (the protein doorway by which HIV enters human cells).

It's a technology that lets scientists alter the DNA of living cells - from plants, animals, even humans - more precisely than ever before.

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The gene editing tools modified a gene called CCR5. Such off-target mutations could obviously cause other problems. These health risks can not be overstated, as the repercussions for these twin girls, in terms of their susceptibility to infectious diseases or cancer will likely be a cause for concern throughout their lives.

Another uncertain outcome for the twins concerns their reproductive health and freedom. But if they're true, the procedure will raise significant ethical questions around gene editing and so-called designer babies.

The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He works, said he had been on unpaid leave since February and his research is a "serious violation of academic ethics and norms".

George Church, a foremost researcher on genetics at Harvard University and the first to outline genome sequencing, likened the importance of the medical breakthrough to the first "test tube" baby born from in vitro fertilization.

"The research work was carried out outside the school by Associate Professor He Jiankui". The hospital confirmed that two of the doctors named in He's documents work at the hospital and suggested that an internal investigation was underway.

Importantly, the ethics approval was only uploaded to the Chinese Clinical Trial Database on November 8 as a retrospective registration - likely around the time that the twins were purportedly born.

With the Genetic Genie out of the bottle, we have to ask whether we need any more time to reflect on the ethics? A predictable outcome of allowing (nay, encouraging) individuals to genetically modify their children will be greater disparity and greater injustice - and not only because of limited access to genome editing technology. Enhancing IQ or selecting hair or eye color is not what a loving parent does. The human genome is a series of messages encoded by DNA.

"If verified, this work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community's application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing", Ms. Doudna said in a statement from Hong Kong.

In this regard it is heartwarming to have Feng Zhang call for a moratorium on implantation of edited embryos and remind his scientific colleagues that "in 2015, the global research community said it would be irresponsible to proceed with any germline editing without 'broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application'".

What you need to know about China claim of gene-edited babies

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