Tuesday 17 September 2019

'Dr Frankenstein' scientist 'proud' as first genetically edited babies are delivered

Claims second woman pregnant as result of research

‘Secret’: He Jiankui at Human Genome Editing summit in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP
‘Secret’: He Jiankui at Human Genome Editing summit in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Sophia Yan

China's "Dr Frankenstein", He Jiankui, the scientist at the centre of a global controversy after claiming he produced the world's first genetically edited babies, defended his work yesterday and revealed a second woman was potentially pregnant as a result of his research.

"For this case, I feel proud," said Mr He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, in a speech at the Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong.

"This study has been submitted to a scientific journal for review," he said, without naming the journal.

Mr He's claims of producing two gene-edited twin baby girls, dubbed "Lulu" and "Nana", and a second patient in "early stages" of pregnancy have stunned the world.

Though unconfirmed as they have yet to be peer-reviewed and published, if true, his work would be a massive breakthrough in biomedical research.

It's also reignited worldwide debate about the enforcement of ethics and regulation of safety in such cutting-edge work. New technology now allows scientists to selectively cut and paste DNA with incredible precision and could in the future be used to eradicate inherited illnesses. But it could also be used to change traits such as height and eye colour, and most controversially, intelligence, potentially paving the way for genetically engineered "designer babies".

For years, Mr He said he worked in secret, on occasion consulting scientific colleagues. Critics point out his self-funded research has skirted science ethics, especially as experts simply don't know how gene-edited embryos will develop as they age into adulthood, and how altered DNA will pass down into future generations.

His work may even be illegal - China bans gene editing in human embryos older than 14 days.

Mr He went on to describe his work, saying eight couples had enrolled in the trial, but one pair had dropped out.

All the fathers had HIV, and mothers who were not infected.

He also said he felt trial participants were informed properly and aware of the risks, describing an initial two-hour consultation, and then a second 70-minute meeting to review line-by-line a 20-page informed consent form.

Thirty-one embryos were created through in-vitro fertilisation; of those, 70pc had their DNA successfully altered to become HIV-resistant by using a method called Crispr-Cas9, he said.

Mr He's work came to light at the start of this week when 'MIT Technology Review' and the Associated Press published interviews with him and members of his lab. His lab also posted detailed videos on YouTube about the work.

Chinese authorities and Southern University said they are investigating Mr He's work and conduct. While his institution said it was unaware of the work, documents posted online about the trials appear to indicate Southern University was involved.

More than 100 scientists condemned the use of the Crispr-Cas9 technology as dangerous and unjustified.

"Pandora's box has been opened," they said in an open letter. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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