Monday 23 September 2019

Too soon to create gene-edited babies, say scientists

A conference in Hong Kong was rocked by Chinese researcher He Jiankui’s claim to have helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies.

(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

By Marilynn Marchione, Associated Press

A group of leading scientists has declared it is too soon to try making permanent changes to DNA that can be inherited by future generations, as a Chinese researcher claims to have done.

The scientists gathered in Hong Kong this week for an international conference on gene editing, the ability to rewrite the code of life to try to correct or prevent disease.

Although the science holds promise for helping people already born, a statement issued by the 14-member conference leaders says it is irresponsible to try it on eggs, sperm or embryos because not enough is known yet about the risks.

The conference was rocked by Chinese researcher He Jiankui’s claim to have helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies, twin girls he said were born earlier this month.

I will remain in China, my home country, and co-operate fully with all inquiries about my work He Jiankui

Conference leaders called for an independent investigation of the claim by Mr He, of Shenzhen, who spoke to the group on Wednesday as international criticism of his claim mounted.

Several prominent scientists said the case showed a failure of the field to police itself and the need for stricter regulations.

There already are some rules that should have prevented this, said Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin lawyer and bioethicist and a conference organiser.

“I think the failure was his, not the scientific community,” Mr Charo said.

The three-day conference was sponsored by the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, and the US National Academy of Sciences and US National Academy of Medicine.

There is no independent confirmation of what Mr He says he did. He was scheduled to speak again at the conference on Thursday, but left Hong Kong and through a spokesman sent a statement saying: “I will remain in China, my home country, and co-operate fully with all inquiries about my work.

“My raw data will be made available for third-party review.”

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David Baltimore (Vincent Yu/AP)

“It’s not unreasonable to expect the scientific community” to follow guidelines, said David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from California Institute of Technology who led the panel.

Gene editing for reproductive purposes might be considered in the future, “but only when there is compelling medical need”, with clear understanding of risks and benefits, and certain other conditions, said Victor Dzau, president of the US National Academy of Medicine.

“Not following these guidelines would be an irresponsible act,” he added.

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