The Associated Press reports that Nobel laureate and biologist Craig Mello was aware of a pregnancy in China involving genetically engineered babies for months before the news went public. The fact that a prominent scientist knows this highly unethical work but prefers to remain silent is a serious cause for concern and a sign that the culture around questionable research needs to change.
As Candice Choi and Marilynn Marchione report to the AP, Mello served on the scientific advisory board of Direct Genomics, a company of geneticist He Jiankui, the researcher responsible for the controversial and possibly criminal genetic editing work. He, a scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, sent an e-mail to Mello in April 2018, telling him about the pregnancy. Mello responded by condemning the work, but remained as scientific advisor to the He company, which was not involved in the experiment, for the next eight months, resigning only after news about the babies edited by genes became public, according to the AP. Mello has not yet responded to a request from Gizmodo to comment.
During a conference on editing the human genome in Hong Kong last November, he admitted modifying the DNA of the embryos with the CRISPR gene-editing tool and implanting them in the mother's womb. Twin babies were born in early November with apparent immunity to HIV / AIDS, a consequence of the removal of the CCR5 gene. A second pregnancy was also revealed by He at the conference. The research, although not yet confirmed, was heavily criticized because of the current state of premature genetic engineering technology, because the research was not necessarily considered medical, and because the long-term effects of the modification are unknown, among many other concerns.
As it stands, most countries, including China and the United States, allow researchers to modify the DNA of human embryos, but the induction of a pregnancy with modified embryos is strictly prohibited. An investigation recently completed by the Chinese authorities found that in addition to violating this ban, he violated laws for "fame and personal gain," such as falsifying ethics certificates and falsifying laboratory work. He was detained by security officials and will be "severely treated," according to Chinese state media.
The AP obtained e-mails between Mello and He through a request for public records. Like the correspondence between the two shows, Mello, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for genetic research, criticized He's work. In an April 2018 email entitled "Success!" He wrote to Mello:
Good news! The women [sic] is pregnant, the genome editing success! The embryo with the edited CCR5 gene has been transplanted to women for 12 days, and today the pregnancy is confirmed!
To which Mello replied:
I'm happy for you, but I'd rather not be told about it. I think this is not a true unmet medical need, and so they do not support the use of CRISPR for this indication. You are risking the health of the child you are editing and, to my knowledge, there is no significant risk of [HIV/AIDS] transmission to embryo with in vitro fertilization. In fact, the treatment itself feeds the fear of HIV and a stigma that is not based on any medical fact. I just do not see why you're doing it.
I wish your patient good luck for a healthy pregnancy.
Despite his reservations, Mello remained with Direct Genomics – and he apparently remained silent about He's dishonest research. Mello declined AP's request for an interview, but his university, the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, provided a statement to the AP in which Mello said his conversations with him were "hypothetical and broad" and that he did not know that he was capable of human genetic editing. According to the AP report:
According to a statement provided by Mello University, he approached Mello during a break at a company meeting in November 2017 to talk about the possibility of using the powerful CRISPR gene-editing tool to prevent HIV infection from father to son. The statement said Mello said he had no idea of He's intention to try this alone.
All told, Mello refers him to a colleague for advice on "risks of pediatric transmission of HIV to a therapy he is contemplating," and Mello attended a meeting of Direct Genomics in China about a week before the Hong conference Kong, the AP reports.
This episode is obviously not good, and highlights the obligations of scientists to speak when there is evidence of unethical work. In the AP article, the University of Wisconsin bioethicist, Charo, who co-led the Hong Kong conference, is quoted as saying "it is unclear" how someone like Mello "might have raised concerns" about He's bill. This is an absurd claim, since a simple tweet, for example, could have alerted the whole world, given Mello's prominent position in the scientific community. But there are also more formal and discreet reporting channels.
"When you hear about something like this, you have a duty to report unethical conduct," Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of New York School of Medicine, told Gizmodo. "At a minimum, you should go to the researcher's home institution, meet the rector or his immediate supervisor, and express your concerns. Ask them if they know about this research and if they approve. "
Another option, Caplan said, is for the concerned scientist to alert his group of colleagues by asking colleagues if they have heard about this research. Together, he said, the group could issue a public letter detailing what they learned, explaining the problematic nature of the work and condemning the research. In addition, "the letter should recommend against any presentation of the work and publication of details in scientific journals," said Caplan. "Lately, you do not want to give them [the unethical researcher] a platform. "
Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, said Mello's action shows how a problematic moratorium on embryo gene editing can be given to prominent scientists who are unwilling to take action in such an imprudent and clear ethical breach.
"Inaction and silence suggest a culture of limited ethical concern," Bowman told Gizmodo. "The real research ethic is not just about what individuals do in search of research, but also about what they are part of and witness."
It is obviously important to shed light on people who have made a mistake and should have known better, but more importantly, the scientific community must learn from this incident and create a culture in which it is not acceptable to remain silent.