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China halts "shocking and unacceptable" gene edited babies experiment

30 November 2018

 
He Jiankui's research has been condemned by scientists, officials, and his own university.

"If true, this experiment is monstrous."

The Chinese government has stepped in to halt the work of a rogue scientist who claims to have created the world's first gene edited babies.

He Jiankui, a researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in the city of Shenzhen, released five videos on Monday, claiming he had used a gene-editing technology to alter the DNA of embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one woman giving birth this month. Mr He said the woman had given birth to twin girls, known as Lulu and Nana.

He claims the girls' DNA had been edited using a method called Crispr-Cas9 to make them resistant to HIV.

Concern and scepticism 

While his shocking claims have yet to be independently verified by experts and published in a journal, there has been an outpouring of criticism from the scientific community. The technology is so new that scientists have no idea how tampering with DNA might affect both the children involved and future generations.

"If true, this experiment is monstrous. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer," Prof Julian Savulescu, a bioethicist at the University of Oxford, told the BBC.

Many countries, including the UK, have laws that prevent the use of genome editing in embryos for assisted reproduction though not for destructive experiments on embryos. Scientists are currently permitted to carry out gene editing research on discarded IVF embryos, as long as they are destroyed immediately afterwards and not transferred to a woman's body and allowed to be born.

Violated the ethical bottom line

Chinese scientists instantly condemned the experiment, with even Mr He's university, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen saying it was unaware of the research project and would launch an investigation.

A Chinese Government official has condemned the research as a violation of Chinese law, and called for all related work to be halted. "The genetically edited infant incident reported by media blatantly violated China’s relevant laws and regulations," Xu Nanping, a vice-minister for science and technology, told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV Thursday evening. "It has also violated the ethical bottom line that the academic community adheres to. It is shocking and unacceptable."

Although Chinese scientists and officials have quickly condemned this tampering with human DNA, Mei Fong, the author of a book about China’s one-child policy, points out that the Chinese government has a long history of using technology to control and manipulate reproduction.

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