Chinese scientist behind genetically modified babies defends research

Speaking before a packed audience of about 700 people at the Second International Summit on the Human Genome Publishing on Wednesday, He Jiankui said he felt "proud" of his work.

Professor at the South Shenzhen University of Science and Technology, he claims that his laboratory has modified the embryonic genes of seven couples undergoing in vitro fertilization, with the help of a tool called CRISPR-cas9, able to insert or disable certain genes.

In a video posted Monday on YouTube, he said that following this intervention, two apparently healthy twin daughters were born with their modified DNA to make them resistant to HIV "a few weeks ago."

"In this particular case, I am proud, and I am most proud because they had lost all hope of life," he said, referring to the parents of the twins, whose father is believed to be HIV positive.

"But with this protection, he (the father) sent a message saying that he would work hard, earn money and take care of his two daughters and his wife."

He Jiankui at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Modification in Hong Kong on November 28, 2018.

He opened the presentation thanking his school, the South Shenzhen University of Science and Technology, "although they are not aware of the study conducted," he said. -he declares.

When asked about the costs, he said that he personally took care of all expenses related to the patient's medical care. He also admitted that some of the sequencing costs were covered by seed funding from his university.

He added that his research had been submitted to a scientific journal for review, without naming the publication, and had apologized for the "unexpected" result.

Chinese scientist claims the world's first gene-modified babies, despite denial of hospital and international outcry

His research has raised serious ethical questions about the transparency of gene editing and has sparked calls for a global consensus as the pace of genetic publishing technology exceeds the ability to create new laws or regulations.

During the Q & A session that followed the presentation, he explained that he had proceeded to two rounds of informed consent with the parents, explaining inter alia that by removing the gene, called CCR5, the babies may be vulnerable to other infections such as West Nile virus, although the informed consent form does not mention it.

The volunteers were found via a group of HIV / AIDS volunteers, he said.

However, many at the Hong Kong conference pointed out that while there is no global regulation prohibiting Heel's actions, its alleged use of CRISPR-cas9 is a clear departure from the convention.

"There is a pretty close consensus between what is and is not acceptable in genome editing so far, and he said his job was a change from that," David said. R Liu, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, pioneered in improving versions of CRISPR.

The conference, which will be attended by leaders from the fields of genetics and ethics, as well as policy makers, is expected to make a statement on the developments at its closing session on Thursday.

After his presentation, David Baltimore, chairman of the conference, said the research was not medically necessary as there are other treatments for HIV. Baltimore criticized its lack of transparency and referred to an agreement reached at the 2015 conference that it would be irresponsible to use such a genetic check until the security issues were resolved.

China a major player

China has heavily invested in gene modification technology, with the government funding research into a number of global "firsts," including the first use of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene modification tool in the world. in 2016 and the first reported use of gene modification technology modify non-viable human embryos in 2015.

Last year, China spent a record amount of 1.76 trillion yuan (254 billion US dollars) in research and development, and the country catches up US investment in the same field, encouraging a run Genetic armaments dubbed "Sputnik 2.0" by Dr. Carl June, specialist in immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania.

However, in a joint statement issued Monday, more than 120 Chinese scientists have condemned the use by him of the CRISPR-Cas9 tool as a "huge blow" to the reputation of Chinese biomedical research.

"This is extremely unfair to Chinese scientists who are diligent, innovative and defending the fundamental principles of scientific ethics," they wrote, adding that "direct experience with humans is not nothing more than madness … as soon as the human being is produced, no one can predict the kind of impact it will have, because the modified hereditary substance will inevitably melt into the pool of the human genome. "

The Chinese government has also ordered an "immediate investigation" into He's claims.

The government investigation follows the steps of the hospital named in the ethical approval documents of He and the university with which he is affiliated to deny any involvement in the proceedings.

In another development, Rice University announced Wednesday it was investigating bioengineering professor Michael Deem, quoted by the press after being quoted in the media.

Deem has been an advisor at Rice for over three years and has published three articles with He.

"This research raises troubling scientific, legal and ethical issues," said Doug Miller, director of the Rice University Media Relations team. In a statement, Miller said Rice had "no knowledge of this job".

Unknown consequences

At the forefront of global concerns is the fact that gene editing technology is still in its infancy and that its use in delivered human embryos could have enormous and unknown consequences.

Chinese scientists use gene modification techniques in humans for the first time

Feng Zhang, one of the inventors of the CRISPR gene modification technique and a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, called for a moratorium on the use of CRISPR for the modification of baby genes.

"It's a wake-up call for the ground to be more vigilant," he told CNN at Wednesday's conference. "These are not things we should do now."

Despite ethical concerns, a recent study suggests that the Chinese public is largely supportive of the use of gene editing for medical purposes. An online survey conducted by Guangzhou's Sun Yat-Sen University found that more than two-thirds of the 4,771 respondents (of whom 575 are believed to be HIV-positive) have supported its use in treating diseases, according to the Global Government tabloid. Times.

"The Chinese are very willing to use genes in the prevention and treatment of diseases," said Liang Chen, a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University. "This suggests that research on gene editing in China not only has promising potential, but also meets the needs of the public."

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