China halts work by team on gene-edited babies

Jiankui. Image via

He, who said his work was self-funded, shrugged off concerns the research was conducted in secrecy, explaining he had engaged the scientific community over the past three years. He's claimed experiment was a rude awakening for scientists at the summit, and an urgent reminder that discussions about how to responsibly use a technology that could reshape the health and character of future generations might not be enough.

After word first leaked of He's project through news reports, scientists criticized the effort as irresponsible and premature. Conference leaders called for an independent investigation of the claim by He Jiankui of Shenzhen, who spoke to the group Wednesday as global criticism of his claim mounted.

At the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on Wednesday, He acknowledged he had not made his university in China aware of the research he was doing.

He said after his presentation on Wednesday he was proud of what he had done.

Many countries, including the United Kingdom, have laws that prevent the use of genome editing in embryos for assisted reproduction in humans.

He said gene editing would help protect the girls from infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Genetic editing has the potential to remove inherited diseases from the gene pool, but scientists and ethicists worry it could be used to create so-called "designer babies".

Gene editing occurred during IVF, first sperm was washed, a single clean sperm was placed into a single egg to create an embryo, then the gene editing tool was added. The resulting twins, born earlier this month to an unknown couple, are now supposedly immune to HIV.

After testing one of the twins is suggested to have both copies of the intended altered gene, while the other twin has just one, with no evidence of harm to other genes.

With so many genetics researchers in one place this week, opinions on He's work have come fast but vary little.

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.

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. It is not clear whether the participants fully understood objective and potential risks and benefits. "Pandora's box has been opened", they said.

There is no independent confirmation of what He says he did. If the births are confirmed the case will be handled in accordance to relevant laws and regulations, it is not clear whether there could be possible criminal charges. He's work has been opposed by over 300 scientists from China and overseas. The scientist also faces probes by the Shenzhen City Medical Ethics Expert Board and the Chinese Academy of Science's academic division.

China's National Health Commission has ordered an investigation into He Jiankui's experiment, which was condemned by the scientific community in China and overseas. He Jiankui has been on leave but remains on the faculty and has a lab at the school. He's filing to a Chinese clinical trials database indicates that a hospital did an ethical review of the project, but the hospital involved denied that its ethics review committee ever met to discuss the work.

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