More than 100 Chinese scientists have condemned the CRISPR baby experiment as “crazy”

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A group of scientists in China claim that they have helped bring two genetically edited twin babies to life. The goal in doing so was to bestow the twin girls with the ability to prevent HIV infection and avoid AIDS. The scientists claim they were successful, according to reports in Associated Press and MIT Tech Review.

The claims haven’t been independently verified, but if they are true, then both science and ethics have entered unchartered territories.

More than 100 Chinese scientists have co-signed a letter, released on China’s social media site Weibo, condemning the experiment for using gene-editing technology on humans. The signatories include scientists from some of China’s most prominent universities and from overseas institutes like MIT.

Quartz has translated the letter into English.


Regarding the recent news from domestic and foreign media on human embryo gene-editing and two babies born using CRISPR technology, as rational human beings, with respect for scientific theories and concerns regarding the future scientific developments in China, our statement is as follows:

The bioethics approval for this so-called “study” was insufficient. We can only use the word “crazy” to describe the experiment conducted directly on human beings. We have much to debate inside the scientific community about the accuracy and off-target-effects brought by CRISPR. Any attempts to alter human embryos and make babies carry huge risks without strict examination beforehand.

It is scientifically possible, but scientists and medical experts have chosen not to use the technology on human beings because of uncertainties, risks, and most importantly, the ethical problems that follow. Such irreversible alterations on human genes will inevitably go into the human gene pool. We should have a thorough and in-depth discussion with scientists and people across the world about these potential effects. We cannot rule out the possibility that the babies, born using this technology, can be healthy for a period of time. But the potential risks and dangers brought along by the unjustified procedure, especially if such experiments carry on, are hard to measure.

At the same time, this is a strike at the reputation and development of China’s science, especially in biomedical research. It’s extremely unfair to most of the scientists and scholars who work hard to innovate and adhere to ethical guidelines.

We urge related regulatory departments and affiliated research institutes to establish laws and regulations on [gene-editing], and conduct a full investigation. They should also reveal the findings to the public.

Pandora’s Box has been opened. We need to close it before we lose our last chance. We as biomedical researchers strongly oppose and condemn any attempts on editing human embryo genes without scrutiny on ethics and safety!

Signed by 122 scientists:

Bi Guoqiang, University of Science and Technology of China

Cai Xuyu, West China Hospital, Sichuan University

Cang Chunlei, University of Science and Technology of China

Cao Gang, Huazhong Agricultural University

Chen Xiaoke, Stanford University

Chen Yelin, Interdisciplinary Research Center on Biology and Chemistry

Chen Yongjun, Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine

Chen Yu, Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Chou Zilong, Institute of Neuroscience, Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Deng Chunshan, Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Dong Peng, Janelia Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Dong Wei, South West Medical University

Dong Zhifang, Chongqing Medical University

Fan Pu, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Basic Medical Science Institute

Fei Jifeng, Institute for Brain Research and Rehabilitation, South China Normal University

Feng Weijun, Fudan University

Fu Yu, Agency for Science, Technology and Research

Ge Wuping, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Gong Hui, the Huazhong University of Science and Technology

Gu Yu, Fudan University

Guan Jisong, School of Life and Science, ShanghaiTech University

Guo Yiping, Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Han Yungeng, School of Basic Medicine, Huazhong University of Science and Technology

He Kaiwen, Interdisciplinary Research Center on Biology and Chemistry

He Miao, Fudan University

He Shuijin, ShanghaiTech University

Hu Ronggui, Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences, China Academy of Sciences

Huang Lianyan, Zhongshan School of Medicine, Sun Yat-Sen University

Huang Rui, Chongqing University

Jia Jiemin, Westlake University

Jiang Man, the Huazhong University of Science and Technology

Xie Yunli, Fudan University

Jin Xinchun, Suzhou University

Kang Lihui, Zhejiang University School of Medicine

Ke Jiangbin, Sun Yat-Sen University

Lei Peng, West China School of Basic Medical Sciences and Forensic Medicine, Sichuan University

Li Anan, Xuzhou Medical University

Li Boxing, Sun Yat-Sen University

Li Chengyu, Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Li Huiliang, University College London

Li Lu, Sun Yat-Sen University

Li Nan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Li Qian, Shanghai Jiaotong University, School of Medicine

Li Yan, Institute of Biophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Li Yanqing, Tsinghua University

Li Yulong, Peking University

Liang Feixue, Southern Medical University

Liang Zhifeng, Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Lin Sen, Army Medical University

Liu Haikun, German Cancer Research Center

Liu Huisheng, Beihang University

Liu Kai, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Liu Qiang, the University of Science and Technology of China

Lu Qi, School of Medicine, Wayne State

Luo Huan, Peking University

Lu Hui, the George Washington University

Ma Chaolin, Nanchang University

Ma Huan, Zhejiang University School of Medicine

Ma Quanhong, Suzhou University

Ma Yuanye, Kunming University of Science and Technology

Mao Yu, Kunming Institute of Zoology, China Academy of Sciences

Mei Lin, Case Western Reserve University

Pan Bingxing, Nanchang University

Pan Yufeng, Institute of Life Sciences, Southeast University

Pang Zhiping, Rutgers University

Peng Bo, Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Peng Jiyun, Nanchang University

Qin Song, Fudan University

Qu Yibo, Jinan University

Ren Chaoran, Jinan University

Shao Zhiyong, Fudan University

Shen Qin, Tongji University

Sheng Nengyin, Kunming Institute of Zoology, China Academy of Sciences

Shi Lei, Jinan University

Song Yan, Peking University

Song Binggui, Zhejiang University, School of Medicine

Sun Wenzhi, Chinese Institute for Brain Research, Beijing

Sun Xiangdong, Guangzhou Medical University

Sun Xiaoli, Fudan University

Sun Yi, Tongji University

Qian Hongtao, Hunan University

Tan Guohe, Guangxi Medical University

Tao Yanmei, Institute of Life Sciences, Hangzhou Normal University

Tong Xiajing, ShanghaiTech University

Tu Jie, Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Wang Hao, Zhejiang University

Wang Shirong, Beijing Institute of Technology

Wang Fei, China Medical University

Wang Liming, Zhejiang University, School of Medicine

Wang Liping, Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Wang Liang, Zhejiang University, School of Medicine

Wang Lupeng, National Institutes of Health

Wang Shouyan, Fudan University

Wang Wenyuan, Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, China Academy of Sciences

Wang Xiaoqin, Tsinghua University

Wang Xiaodong, Zhejiang University, School of Medicine

Wang Xiaoqun, Institute of Biophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Wu Qingfeng, Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Wu Longjun, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science

Xiao Xiao, Fudan University

Xiong Wei, Tsinghua University

Xiong Wei, University of Science and Technology of China

Xu Nanjie, Shanghai Jiaotong University, School of Medicine

Xu Ying, Suzhou University

Xu Zhenzhong, Zhejiang University, School of Medicine

Xu Junyu, Zhejiang University

Xu Xiaohong, Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Xu Zhiheng, Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Xue Tian, the University of Science and Technology of China

Yang Yan, Institute of Biophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Yang Yang, ShanghaiTech University

Yang Zhengang, Fudan University

Ye Haihong, Capital Medical University

Yu Yongchun, Fudan University

Yuan Kexin, Tsinghua University

Zhan Cheng, National Institutes of Biological Sciences, Beijing

Zhang Bo, Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School

Zhang Erquan, National Institutes of Biological Sciences, Beijing

Zhang Jiayi, Fudan University

Zhang Jie, Xiamen University

Zhang Luoying, Huazhong University of Science and Technology

Zhang Siyu, Shanghai Jiaotong University, School of Medicine

Quartz


World’s first gene-edited babies created in China, claims scientist

A scientist in China claims to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies, in a potentially ground-breaking and controversial medical first.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics. This kind of gene editing is banned in most countries as the technology is still experimental and DNA changes can pass to future generations, potentially with unforeseen side-effects.

Many mainstream scientists think it is too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

The researcher, He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting so far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have: an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV.

He said the parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and he would not say where they lived or where the work was done. There is no independent confirmation of He’s claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts.

He revealed it on Monday in Hong Kong to one of the organisers of an international conference on gene editing that is due to begin on Tuesday, and earlier in interviews with the Associated Press.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He said. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it. It was “unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” said Dr Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene-editing expert.

“If true, this experiment is monstrous,” said Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford. “The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.”

“There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals: for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one does contract it. This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit. In many other places in the world, this would be illegal punishable by imprisonment.”

In recent years, scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body. The tool, called Crispr-Cas9, makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that is causing problems.

It has only recently been tried in adults to treat deadly diseases, and the changes are confined to that person. If sperm, eggs or embryos were to be edited, the changes could then be inherited.

He Jiankui studied at Rice and Stanford universities in the US before returning to his homeland to open a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, where he also has two genetics companies.

He said he practised editing mice, monkey and human embryos in the lab for several years and has applied for patents on his methods. He said he chose embryo gene editing for HIV because these infections are a major problem in China. He sought to disable a gene called CCR5 that forms a protein doorway that allows HIV, the virus that causes Aids, to enter a cell.

All of the men in the project had HIV and all of the women did not, but the gene editing was not aimed at preventing the small risk of transmission, he said. The fathers had their infections deeply suppressed by standard HIV medicines and there are simple ways to keep them from infecting offspring that do not involve altering genes. Instead, the appeal was to offer couples affected by HIV a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate.

He said the gene editing occurred during in vitro fertilisation. First, sperm was “washed” to separate it from semen, in which HIV can lurk. A single sperm was placed into a single egg to create an embryo. Then the gene-editing tool was added. When the embryos were three to five days old, a few cells were removed and checked for editing. Couples could choose whether to use edited or unedited embryos for pregnancy attempts. In all, 16 of 22 embryos were edited, and 11 embryos were used in six implant attempts before the twin pregnancy was achieved, He said.

Tests suggest that one twin had both copies of the intended gene altered and the other twin had just one altered, with no immediate evidence of harm to other genes, He said. People with one copy of the gene can still get HIV.

Musunuru said that even if editing worked perfectly, people without normal CCR5 genes faced higher risks of contracting certain other viruses, such as West Nile, and of dying from flu. Since there are many ways to prevent HIV infection and it is treatable if it occurs, those other medical risks are a concern.

There also are questions about the way He said he proceeded. He gave official notice of his work long after he said he started it, on 8 November. It is also unclear whether participants fully understood the purpose and potential risks and benefits; for example, consent forms called the project an Aids vaccine development programme.

He said he personally made the goals clear and told participants that embryo gene editing had never been tried before and carried risks. He said he also would provide insurance coverage for any children conceived through the project and plans medical follow-up until the children are 18, and longer if they agree once they are adults.

“I believe this is going to help the families and their children,” He said. If it caused unwanted side-effects or harm, “I would feel the same pain as they do and it’s going to be my own responsibility”.

Dr Sarah Chan, a bioethicist at the University of Edinburgh, said that if true, the experiment was “of grave ethical concern”.

“Whether or not the veracity of these reports is eventually borne out, making such claims in a way that seems deliberately designed to provoke maximum controversy and shock value is irresponsible and unethical,” she said.

“The claim made by those responsible for the research is that the babies have been genome edited in an attempt to make them immune to HIV. The lifetime risk of contracting HIV is extremely low in the first place; there are other means of prevention and it is no longer an incurable, inevitably terminal disease. Putting these children at such drastic risk for such a marginal gain is unjustifiable.”

The Guardian

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