China has suspended research by He Jiankui and his colleagues who have claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies. Reports say the Chinese authorities called the move ‘extremely abominable” and against Chinese law.
Earlier in the week, amidst massive outrage and condemnation, He announced that a second genetically edited pregnancy is underway and in early stages.
The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, revealed the pregnancy on Wednesday while making his first public comments about his controversial work at an international conference in Hong Kong.
He claims to have altered the DNA of twin girls born earlier this month to try to make them resistant to infection with the HIV virus.
Mainstream scientists have condemned the experiment, and universities and government groups are investigating.
"The second pregnancy is in a very early stage and needs more time to be monitored to see if it will last." - He Jiankui
After his talk, leading scientists said that there are now even more reasons to worry, and more questions than answers. The leader of the conference called the experiment "irresponsible" and evidence that the scientific community had failed to regulate itself to prevent premature efforts to alter DNA.
Altering DNA before or at the time of conception is highly controversial because the changes can be inherited and might harm other genes. It is banned in some countries including the United States except for lab research.
Jiankui defended his choice of HIV, rather than a fatal inherited disease, as a test case for gene editing and insisted that the girls could benefit from it.
"They need this protection since a vaccine is not available," He said.
However, scientists weren't buying it.
"I‘m grateful that he appeared today, but I don’t think that we heard answers. We still need to understand the motivation for this. I feel more disturbed now." - David Liu of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute
Liu added, "It's an appalling example of what not to do about a promising technology that has great potential to benefit society. I hope it never happens again." There is no independent confirmation of his claim and he has not yet published in any scientific journal where it could be vetted by experts.
"This is a truly unacceptable development," said Jennifer Doudna, a University of California-Berkeley scientist and one of the inventors of the CRISPR gene-editing tool that he said he used.
At the conference, he failed or refused to answer many questions including who paid for his work, how he ensured that participants understood potential risks and benefits, and why he kept his work secret until after it was done.
After he spoke, David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from the California Institute of Technology and a leader of the conference, said his work "would still be considered irresponsible" because it did not meet criteria many scientists agreed on several years ago before gene editing could be considered.
"I personally don't think that it was medically necessary. The choice of the diseases that we heard discussions about earlier today are much more pressing" than trying to prevent HIV infection this way, he said.
If gene editing is ever allowed, many scientists have said it should be reserved to treat and prevent serious inherited disorders with no good alternatives, such as sickle cell anemia and Huntington’s disease.
HIV is not an appropriate candidate because there are already safe ways to prevent transmission, and if contracted it can be kept under control with medications, researchers said.
The case shows "there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community" and said the conference committee would meet and issue a statement on Thursday about the future of the field, Baltimore said.
Before his talk, Dr George Daley, Harvard Medical School's dean and one of the conference organisers, warned against a backlash to gene editing because of Jiankui’s experiment.
"Just because the first case may have been a misstep, it should in no way, I think, lead us to stick our heads in the sand and not consider the very, very positive aspects that could come forth by a more responsible pathway." - Dr George Daley
Regulators have been swift to condemn the experiment as unethical and unscientific.
The National Health Commission has ordered local officials in Guangdong province to investigate his actions, and his employer, Southern University of Science and Technology of China, is investigating as well.
On Tuesday, Qui Renzong of the Chinese Academy of Social Science criticized the decision to let him speak at the conference, saying the claim "should not be on our agenda" until it has been reviewed by independent experts.
Whether he violated reproductive medicine laws in China has been unclear; Qui contends that he did, but said, "the problem is, there's no penalty." He called on the United Nations to convene a meeting to discuss heritable gene editing to promote international agreement on when it might be okay.
Meanwhile, more American scientists said they had contact with he and were aware of or suspected what he was doing.
(With inputs from PTI)
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