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
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.”