Chinese researcher claims second pregnancy with gene-edited baby is underway

Thursday, 29 Nov, 2018

Last year He revealed his interest in being the first to successfully use the method to genetically alter a human baby, indicating the competition among scientists to get out ahead of their colleagues.

Scientist He Jiankui of Shenzhen says he said he has altered DNA in human embryos, and that healthy twin girls are now at home with their parents.

He, a professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claims that his lab had been editing embryos' genetic codes for seven couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization. The babies' names are Lulu and Nana, He said in one video.

"I feel more disturbed now", said David Liu of Harvard and MIT's Broad Institute, and inventor of a variation of the gene-editing tool. In his YouTube video, He describes the procedure as having "removed the doorway through which HIV enters".

China's National Health Commission said it was "highly concerned" and had ordered provincial health officials "to immediately investigate and clarify the matter".

According to a description of the experiment posted online, He created embryos from couples with an HIV-infected father. The hospital confirmed that two of the doctors named in He's documents work at the hospital and suggested that an internal investigation was underway.

Qiu Renzong, former vice president of the Chinese health ministry's ethics committee, accused He of obtaining a "fraudulent" ethics review by going to another hospital for review as opposed to obtaining approval from his own university, adding he was destroying the reputation of China's scientists.

Southern University of Science and Technology said on Monday that it was not aware of the research, as He did not report it to the school. The academic board of SUSTC's biology department has deemed that the project "seriously violated academic ethics and norms".

An independent confirmation of He's assertion is not yet available nor has he published his results in a journal where other researchers could evaluate the claim.

In many countries the editing of human DNA is tightly controlled. In the United Kingdom, editing of embryos may be permitted for research purposes with strict regulatory approval. "It's not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing".

Scientists and bioethics experts reacted with shock, anger and alarm Monday to a Chinese researcher's claim that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies. But his announcement sparked heated controversy over concerns over medical ethics and effectiveness.

Organisers of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, which opened Tuesday, also said they had been unaware of He's work.

"It is extremely unfair to the vast majority of Chinese scholars who are diligent in scientific research and innovation".

"If true, this experiment is monstrous", he said.

"That is helpful for parents and that can increase their chances of having a healthy baby, but that's very different from manipulating the embryo itself", said Goodman. The tool has been used recently to treat deadly diseases in adults, but not in editing sperm, eggs, or embryos.

Shortly after his talk, He canceled a planned appearance in a Thursday session on embryo gene editing, according to the Royal Society, one of the conference organizers.

"There are safe and effective ways to protect children from HIV transmission, so the study as reported does not appear to address an unmet medical need". "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.

"In this ever more competitive global pursuit of applications for gene editing, we hope to be a stand-out", He and his team wrote in an ethics statement previous year. Gene editing expert Kiran Musunuru of the University of Pennsylvania called it an "unconscionable" experiment and "not morally or ethically defensible".

In Canada, the research would likely have broken the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which states that "no person shall knowingly alter the genome of a cell of a human being or in vitro embryo such that the adjustment is capable of being transmitted to descendants".

That so-called mosaicism, in which some but not all of the embryo's cells are altered, is troubling since in this case, it would mean that girl may not be entirely protected from HIV infection like her sister.