Policy, BioPharma

Chinese researcher defends gene-edited ‘CRISPR babies’ amid global outcry

Researchers in the field of gene editing have largely denounced the experiment by Jiankui He and a team of scientists, including after he defended his work at a conference Wednesday.

Genetically engineered humans are usually a trope of dystopian science fiction. Think of Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel, “Brave New World”; the 1997 movie “Gattaca”; or “Moby Dick”-quoting Star Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh. But a Chinese scientist caused an uproar this week when he announced he had made two of them and on Wednesday continued to defend his work at a scientific conference.

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 team is led by Jiankui He, at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, across the border from Hong Kong. In a series of videos on YouTube Monday, He announced that two apparently healthy twin girls had been born from gene-edited embryos.

The news almost immediately sparked a global backlash. The Southern China Morning Post reported that more than 120 Chinese scientists condemned the experiment as “crazy” and “unethical.” The MIT Technology Review subsequently reported Monday that He is now suspended without pay and under investigation by the university into whether his experiment violated Chinese laws or regulations. The university also distanced itself from the research, saying it “seriously violates ethical and academic standards and regulations.”

On Wednesday, CNN reported that Rice University in Houston – where He had studied – had opened an investigation of his academic mentor, bioengineering professor Michael Deem, after media reports quoted him as saying he had been involved in the research.

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb also weighed in, emphasizing in a Twitter post the need for “more than just laws” to ensure CRISPR-Cas9 and other gene-editing technologies aren’t misused or abused. “The scientific community must enforce without mercy strict standards on the moral and ethical limits of how these technologies should be used,” he wrote.

On Wednesday, He defended his research, telling scientists at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong he was proud of his work. In response, The National Academies Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a neutrally worded statement about the news that nevertheless highlighted reports from last year and this year laying out ethical considerations around human genome editing.

Still, researchers in the field were not satisfied by He’s defense Wednesday. University of California Berkeley scientist Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of CRISPR-Cas9 research, told Nature she was “horrified and stunned” by the process He described, calling it “inappropriate on so many levels.” It was “misguided, premature, unnecessary and largely useless,” the publication quoted University of Wisconsin-Madison bioethicist Alta Charo as saying.

An entry for the clinical trial is still posted on the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry, having been registered on Nov. 8. According to the registry entry, the Medical Ethics Committee of Shenzhen HOME Women’s and Children’s Hospital approved the trial on March 7, 2017.

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