China scientist defends gene-editing babies

Picture for representation purpose only.

Picture for representation purpose only.  

The Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world’s first genetically-edited babies defended the highly controversial procedure on Wednesday, but announced a halt to the trial following an international outcry.

He Jiankui told a packed Hong Kong biomedical conference he was “proud” to have successfully altered the DNA of twin girls born to an HIV- positive father, an apparent medical breakthrough.

But details of the experiment, which has not been independently verified, triggered an immediate backlash, with experts denouncing Mr. He’s work as an ethical “mess”.

“The clinical trial was paused due to the current situation,” said Mr. He. “For this specific case, I feel proud, actually, I feel proudest.”

The university Professor said the twin girls, born a few weeks ago, had their DNA altered to prevent them from contracting HIV.

Eight volunteer couples — HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers — signed up to the trial, with one dropping out before it was paused.

He said there had been “another potential pregnancy” involving a second couple, but when questioned further agreed it had been a chemical pregnancy — a term referring to a very early miscarriage.

The experiment has prompted heated debate among scientists over the risks involved. Editing human embryos can create unintended mutations in other areas — so-called “off-target effects” — which can have an impact through the lifetime, experts warned.

“The volunteers were informed of the risk posed by the existence of one potential off-target and they decided to implant,” Mr. He said Wednesday, as he was bombarded with questions about the trial.

Organisers of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing also said they had not known about Mr. He’s work.

Conference moderator Robin Lovell-Badge said Mr. He’s trial was a “backward step” for the science industry, but described the babies’ birth as “momentous” nonetheless.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 6:28:37 PM |

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