Chinese scientists condemn gene editing

Desiree Burns
December 4, 2018

Overseas researchers have called this risky and unethical. This kind of work is now banned in many countries as the DNA changes can pass to future generations and possibly risks harming other genes.

Last September, scientists at Sun Yat-sen University used an adapted version of gene-editing to correct a disease-causing mutation in human embryos. Instead, it's been thrown into chaos after a Chinese scientist claimed to have gone forward with his own quest to genetically modify human embryos, some of which have already been carried to term, resulting in the first genetically modified humans. As of writing, He's work has not been published or independently peer-reviewed and the claims remain unsubstantiated. The scientist revealed his claims in Hong Kong to an organizer of an global conference on gene editing, and an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.

"I feel a strong responsibility and let society decide for itself that this (achievement) to do next", - said the scientist, "But I had to do this for example of what's possible".

As gene-editing technology is at initial stages, it is hard to judge what the consequences of using human embryos could lead to. Still, that practice is surrounded by intense ethical debate, questions on the regulation of safety and is governed by laws in some countries; in the United Kingdom, it is illegal to gene edit human embryos over 14 days old.

The backlash is mainly centered around longstanding ethical questions in regards to manipulating human genes before (and after) birth.

China's National Health Commission issued a separate statement saying that it "attached great importance" to reports about the gene-editing experiment and immediately asked provincial health officials to "seriously investigate and verify" the reports. According to the medical document published online, the study recruited HIV-positive men with HIV-negative female partners, and who were willing to participate in an IVF program and allow embryos to be edited with CRISPR.

When the embryos were 3 to 5 days old, a few cells were removed and checked for editing. In one of the twins both copies of the CCR5 gene are said to be modified, and for the other one only one copy is modified. 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. "The study has been submitted to a scientific journal for review", he added.

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The team did identify one potential off-target edit in the embryos, He said. Experts said some of the risks with this particular gene editing, is a high risk of contracting other viruses, such as West Nile. It is not clear whether the participants fully understood goal and potential risks and benefits.

Speaking Wednesday, Dr He, of Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said he was "proud" of his work.

Further attempts have been put on hold until the safety of this one are analyzed and experts weigh in.

He claimed that his project had received ethical approval from Shenzhen Harmonicare Women's and Children's Hospital.

Some staff at some of the other hospitals were kept in the dark about the nature of the research, which He and Deem said was done to keep some participants' HIV infection from being disclosed.

This week, several Chinese institutions, including the university where He has served as an associate professor in biology, have disassociated themselves from his work.

The announcement has come as a shock to the scientific community and has created controversial waves around the world. But based on news reports, he said, He appeared to have "blatantly violated China's relevant laws and regulations" and broken "the bottom line of morality and ethics that the academic community adheres to", the state broadcaster China Central Television reported Thursday. However, there are also concerns about its safety and ethics.

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