On the second day of the second International Summit on the Modification of the Human Genome, the last session before lunch was already long. But the crowded crowd at the Lee Shau Kee Conference Center at the University of Hong Kong has not moved. The 5,500 people around the world have not been stuck to their live video feeds either. Everyone was waiting for the last speaker, the man who says he helped create the first baby in the world to be edited by a gene.
This man, He Jiankui, is a Chinese-born biophysicist born in China who claims to have a pair of twin babies in Crispr'd.
The WIRED guide of Crispr
Robin Lovell-Badge, a biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, took the floor to introduce the controversial speaker. Lovell-Badge reminded everyone that the National Academy of Sciences, the global non-governmental scientific group that helped convene this summit, was not aware of He's work. "He sent me the slides that he was going to show during this session and they did not include any of the works he was going to talk about," Lovell-Badge said. "Nothing involving human embryos that have been implanted."
But after Review of MIT technology He announced two days ago that He's clandestine trials have taken place. He's session at this event aroused intense fascination. People who followed on Twitter were wondering if he would show anything. And for a long, painful minute after Lovell-Badge greeted him on the stage, it seemed like he could not. When he finally appeared, he started giving a different speech, full of details about what he was preparing.
Over the past two years, he has worked in secret, circumventing ethical and scientific codes of conduct, and even laws, to create a biological story. Wednesday morning, Hong Kong time, he revealed to the world how he had done it. It will take scientists days to analyze the 59 data-rich slides describing He's methods and results. Only then will a more complete picture begin to appear on the safety and effectiveness of the experience. But in the meantime, he gave us a lot of food for thought.
Just like the fact that Lulu and Nana, the twins, are not the only children in her group to have children from Crispr'd. By pressing the number of implantations carried out so far, the scientist revealed that there was another potential pregnancy involving a gene-modified embryo. He hesitated to answer the question because the pregnancy was in its infancy. His research team has so far injected Crispr systems into 30 embryos developed up to the blastocyst stage. According to him, 70% of them have been successfully edited and are still waiting to be detected and implanted in the remaining five couples. But now, everything is waiting. "The trial is suspended due to the current situation," he says.
He is currently under investigation by his own university and other legal bodies in China.
After his presentation, he answered questions from the audience and moderators, including Lovell-Badge and Matthew Porteus, Stanford researcher and scientific founder of Crispr Therapeutics, a company that develops Crispr-based drugs for the treatment of genetic diseases. During all this time, he remained calm and thoughtful, if not always fully open.
At one point, Harvard biochemist David Liu questioned the unmet medical need he was responding to, based on his experiences. He recruited couples whose mothers are HIV-negative and father for HIV, modifying their embryos to give them a rare but natural trait: the ability to resist HIV infections. Since there are ways to ensure that HIV-positive parents do not pass on their disease to their babies without modifying their DNA, Liu asked He to "describe the unmet medical need, not HIV." in general, but of these patients in particular. "
He replied that his essay concerned not only these few patients, but also millions of children with HIV worldwide. He described the personal experience lived in a village in China where 30% of the inhabitants are infected and where children have to live with their loved ones for fear of contracting the virus. "In fact, I'm proud," said He.
Everyone does not agree with It takes. Between two rounds of questions, Nobel laureate and summit chairman David Baltimore intervened to announce that the organizing committee would make an official statement regarding He's work on Thursday. Baltimore then shared some personal reflections, including that the described experiments do not meet the National Academy of Sciences criteria for responsible application of human germ line modification. "Personally, I do not think it was medically necessary," Baltimore said. "I think the scientific community has failed to self-regulate because of a lack of transparency," he added.
The other members of the organizing committee were equally skeptical. "After listening to Dr. He, I can only conclude that it was wrong, premature, useless, and largely useless," wrote Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in an e-mail to WIRED. Charo co-chaired the 2017 Consensus Study of National Academies that defined the criteria for an ethical journey toward modifying the human germ line. Her main concern, she said, was that he consented to the forms signed by the patients, which gave her the impression that her project was an AIDS vaccine trial and that she was not going to be able to do so. he could have combined research and treatment by saying that the participants would benefit ".
As for the other embryos he has edited, which are on the ice while the trial itself is frozen? "What will happen to these embryos, or even who decides what will happen," says Charo, "is unknown."
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