Published: Fri, November 30, 2018
Health Care | By Edgar Pierce

Gene-editing outcry: Third baby ‘may be on the way’

Gene-editing outcry: Third baby ‘may be on the way’

On Sunday, the MIT Technology Review reported that a team of scientists in China had started a clinical trial to use CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to create babies who would not carry the gene CCR5, under the hypothesis they would be resistant to HIV, smallpox and cholera.

The institutions affiliated with He, including his university - the Southern University of Science and Technology - and the Shenzhen hospital where he purportedly received ethical approval for the project, have said that they had no knowledge of his work.

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.

He claims to have altered embryos for seven couples during IVF treatment.

"I feel proudest", He said when challenged by several peers at the Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong.

Prof He confirmed the university was not aware, adding he had funded the experiment by himself. Eight couples had enrolled in the study while one dropped out, and the criteria was that the father be HIV positive and the mother be HIV negative.

"Even if the modifications are verified, the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform with worldwide norms", the organizing committee of the Second global Summit on Human Genome Editing, being held in Hong Kong this week, said in a statement.

He said his study had been submitted to a scientific journal for review, though he did not name the journal.

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In a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange on Tuesday, the group said preliminary investigations indicated the signatures on the application form circulated on the internet are "suspected to have been forged, and no relevant meeting of the Medical Ethics Committee of the hospital in fact took place".

Why is his work controversial?

The Crispr gene editing tool he claims to have used is not new to the scientific world, and was first discovered in 2012.

It works by using "molecular scissors" to alter a very specific strand of DNA - either cutting it out, replacing it or tweaking it. The medical necessity of the experiment was questioned, along with He's responsibility for the lives of the gene-edited children, and how the modification could change the gene pool of the human species in future generations. They also worry any genetic changes could lead to other genes being altered in unpredictable ways.

This news was greeted with nearly universal condemnation, with most mainstream scientists and ethicists complaining that He violated established scientific and ethics standards, among other complaints.

In many countries the editing of human DNA is tightly controlled.

The ethical implications of modifying the genes of humans have been hotly debated for many years already, but the emergence of CRISPR gene editing technology has made it relatively easy for researchers to conduct such work if they so choose.

China's science ministry on Thursday ordered that anyone conducting research in gene editing halt their activities.

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