Chinese scientist claims to have "edited" genes from twins hit by colleagues and medical ethics experts



November 27, 2018 08:11:44

A Chinese university said it would immediately begin an investigation after an associate professor released videos on YouTube, claiming to have edited the twin genes born earlier this month and defending the ethics of his work.

Key points:

  • He Jiankui says he was able to copy and paste defective genes
  • Scientists say it is "heavy blow" to the reputation of Chinese science
  • Many contested veracity of Mr. He's claims

The South University of Science and Technology in southern China's Shenzhen city said it was unaware of the research project and that the scholar, He Jiankui, had been on unpaid leave since February.

The work is a "grave violation of academic ethics and standards," he said.

The university released a statement after it said on Monday in five videos posted on the video-sharing website that it used a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the genes of the twin girls.

The editing process, which he calls genetic surgery, "worked safely as intended," and the girls are "as healthy as any other baby," he says in a video.

It was impossible to verify the allegations as Mr. He provided no written documentation of his research.

A "monstrous" experiment

CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology that allows scientists to essentially cut and paste DNA, increasing the hope of genetic corrections for diseases. However, there are also concerns about your safety and ethics.

"If this is true, this experience is monstrous," said Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics at Oxford University.

The South University of Science and Technology said it would form an independent committee of experts to investigate. He said that you were on unpaid leave until 2021.

"The University of Science and Technology of the South rigorously demands that scientific research be in compliance with national laws and regulations and that it respects and complies with international academic ethics and standards," he said.

He defended his job and said he had been on voluntary leave for several years to focus on his research.

"I understand that my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology, and I am willing to accept criticism from them," he said.

In a previous email, he said he planned to share data on the trial in a scientific forum this week.

He said he planned that it would also be "through the peer review process, and through a pre-print soon."

A preprint is a publication of findings made prior to publication of the survey in a peer-reviewed journal.

"These healthy babies are being used as genetic guinea pigs. This is Russian genetic roulette," Mr. Savulescu said.

He said it aims to give "genetically engineered" babies the protection of life against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

He said he started his work in the second half of 2017 and enrolled eight couples. All potential parents involved were HIV positive.

Five chose to implant embryos, including the parents of the twins, identified only by the pseudonyms Mark and Grace.

In April 2015, scientists at Sun Yat-sen University provoked a global controversy after publishing the results of an experiment that used CRISPR-Cas9 to edit non-viable human embryo genes.

Chinese scientists furious in experiment

He also experienced anger among his peers at home, in addition to those abroad.

In an open letter published in the Weibo Zhishifenzi account (The Intellectuals), a group of 122 biomedical scientists talked about the threat it posed to humans and the implications for the reputation of Chinese scientists.

"The so-called biomedical ethical review of this study was in fact only in the name," the letter said.

"Direct human experiences [without ethical assessment] can only be described as madness.

"The accuracy of CRISPR gene-editing technology and its target-target effect are very controversial in the scientific community.

"Any attempt to directly transform human embryos and produce babies has enormous risks.

"At the same time, this is a major blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science, especially in the field of biomedical research."

Editing human genes derives from eugenics

In an earlier era, Western science equipped the shared genetic set of humanity in the field of eugenics – a field of study intended to "improve" the human race through the selective creation and extermination of those who were considered "defective."

More often than not, those with white European heritage were considered at the top of the social hierarchy, while those with "low IQ and small heads" are considered "improper" members of the gene pool.

Before its demise, the camp was occupied by a number of scientists and political leaders in the United States and Germany, who eventually created the conditions for the Ku-Klux-Klan in America and the Third Reich in the 1930s.

This belief system also came to Australia, with Melbourne at the center of the movement.


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