Controversial gene editing of embryos stopped by the Chinese authorities


The Chinese government has stopped a controversial project that helped produce the world's first gene-edited babies, declaring the work of scientist He Jiankui as unlawful and unethical. But many other scientists seemed highly skeptical, with a conference organiser calling his actions irresponsible.

He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, center, speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.

Harvard University's Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology David Liu says: "It's an appalling example of what not to do with a new technology that has incredible potential to benefit society".

"The choice of diseases we heard earlier today are much more pressing than providing to one person some protection against HIV infection", Baltimore, chairman of the summit's organising committee, said.

The twin announcements from the leading scientific body and Chinese authorities capped a dramatic week for the genomics world. Scientists have been working to prevent just such a rogue use of the rapidly advancing technology for making changes in human DNA.

"The events in Hong Kong this week clearly demonstrate the need for us to develop more specific standards and principles that can be agreed upon by the worldwide scientific community", NAS president Marcia McNutt and NAM president Victor Dzau wrote.

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

Baltimore added, "I don't think it has been a transparent process. I personally don't think it was medically necessary". He has not yet published his work or shared his data, contributing to the concerns shared throughout the scientific community.

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Co-creator of the technology Jennifer Doudna said she felt "horrified" at hearing He's talk, adding she was deeply concerned for the people affected and questioned whether they really understood the procedure.

When He, 34, walked onstage in an open-collar shirt carrying a tan briefcase, it was clear this would be no ordinary conference presentation.

Conference moderator Robin Lovell-Badge said the summit organisers were unaware of the story until it broke this week.

Collins said the NIH was taking preliminary steps to investigate a Rice University researcher who served as He's graduate advisor when He pursued graduate study at the Houston university and who has acknowledged participating in his protege's research.

The National Health Commission has said Prof He's work "violates China's laws, regulations and ethical standards" and has said that investigations have been initiated.

The scientist had told a packed biomedical conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday he was "proud" to have successfully altered the DNA of the twins.

The Beijing News has reported that couples who agreed to participate were paid 280,000 yuan (US$40,000), on condition that they did not seek further compensation should the experiments go wrong.

China's vice minister of science and technology, Xu Nanping has said that the government is opposing this project and said in a statement that this experiment on human embryos has "crossed the line of morality and ethics adhered to by the academic community and was shocking and unacceptable".

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