Tuesday, 18 December, 2018

China halts work by team on gene-edited babies

Science Science
Kristen Harrington | 01 December, 2018, 02:53

The National Health Commission has ordered local officials in Guangdong province to investigate He's actions, and his employer, Southern University of Science and Technology of China, is investigating as well. The announcement drew a firestorm of criticism from around the world as being technologically premature, possibly harmful in unforeseen ways to the babies, and unjustified because there are more efficient and safer ways to prevent HIV infections.

A group of leading scientists gathered in Hong Kong this week for an global conference on gene editing, the ability to rewrite the code of life to try to correct or prevent diseases.

The committee, representing leading researchers from the United States, Britain, and Hong Kong, did not call for an outright ban on gene editing. They had HIV positive males and HIV negative mothers. The couples had received hours of counselling before the procedure, with He promising that he would improve their children as well as making them resistant to HIV. He was scheduled to speak again at the conference on Thursday, but he left Hong Kong and through a spokesman sent a statement saying "I will remain in China, my home country, and cooperate fully with all inquiries about my work".

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"The team all along emphasised that the chance of success was high, and that there were risks, but they were low", he told RTHK. They chose to drop out at the last minute, as they did not want to be treated like "lab rats".

After news of Mr He's work came to light earlier this week, Chinese scientists were quick to denounce it, as was his institution, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen.

Dr. He told his colleagues he conducted his research in secret.

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Chinese Vice Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping said that the project "crossed the line of morality and ethics adhered to by the academic community and was shocking and unacceptable".

There already are some rules that should have prevented what He says he did, said Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin lawyer and bioethicist and a conference organizer.

"At this summit we heard an unexpected and deeply disturbing claim that human embryos had been edited and implanted, resulting in a pregnancy and the birth of twins", said the summit's organizing committee, which called for independent verification of He's claims that have so far not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, where He spoke, called clinical use of the techniques "irresponsible at this time". It said his procedures had a number of flaws, ranging from a poorly-designed study protocol for ensuring transparency to a failure to meet ethical standards to protect the welfare of research subjects.

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