A day after the announcement of the news of a Chinese scientist claiming to have contributed to the creation of the world's first genomics-based baby, researchers fear that this startling announcement will hurt their efforts to translate safely gene editing technology.
While scientists gathered today in Hong Kong for the second International Summit on Human Genetic Modification, the conversation is constantly turned towards the demand of He Jiankui – who has not yet been independently verified – to have impregnated a woman with modified embryos to make them resistant to HIV infection. The woman gave birth to healthy twins this month, said He, a researcher in genome editing at the China University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, in a video posted on YouTube.
This statement provoked the shock and indignation of the scientists, who questioned the merits of a potentially dangerous preliminary procedure without international scientific consensus as to whether and how such an experiment should be conducted. Even his own university has distanced himself from the results. Today, scientists are also considering a deterrent effect on gene editing.
"I fear an instinctive reaction that could lead countries that are still working on regulations to unnecessarily complicate this research," says Robin Lovell Badge, development biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, who is attending the summit. it goes from today to November 29th.
Jin Soo Kim, a molecular biologist at the Seoul National University and attending the meeting, is trying to persuade the South Korean government to relax its stringent regulations on embryo research. The country does not allow research on embryos, particularly with the help of gene editing tools such as CRISPR – Cas9. Now, Kim fears that he claims will result in more restrictions in South Korea.
These concerns are particularly acute in China, where scientists are sensitive to the country's reputation as a far west of biomedical research. The China Genetic Society and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research issued a joint statement on November 27: "We strongly condemn it for its extreme responsibility, both scientific and ethical."
The group's statement also distanced Mr. He's work from traditional science in China. "The experiment conducted by He is an individual activity," he said. They also ask for government inquiries.
On November 27, the National Health Commission of China ordered the opening of an investigation into the Guangdong Health Commission, where its university is located. The Shenzhen government also announced the opening of an investigation on the ethical approval claimed in the online trial notification.
Rosario Isasi, a lawyer at the University of Miami Florida, said scientists in China feared the country had gained an unfair reputation for being lax in regulating scientific research. This latest announcement will not help, says Isasi, who has worked with the Chinese Academy of Sciences as an international scholar. "For the Chinese, it's hurtful and they are tired," she said. In 2015, a research group in China launched the debate on the use of gene editing in human embryos by publishing the first use of this technology, although in this case the embryos n & # 39; 39 have not been implanted.
Paula Cannon, who is studying HIV at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said the news could also worsen the stigma associated with HIV. In her view, her procedure makes HIV-positive illness so dire that people have to be genetically modified to overcome the risk of infection, she says. "The damage he caused in the field of gene editing, HIV-positive people and their allies, Chinese scientists. It's horrible, "she says.
Other researchers think it's too early to say whether a feedback will affect support for research on genome editing and look forward to hearing what it's like has to say at tomorrow's meeting when he has to give a lecture.
"The researchers here will be wary. They will watch the reaction – there has been a lot of negative reaction. It will depend a lot on what He Jiankui tells us, "said Dana Carroll, a biochemist at the University of Utah, at the meeting.
The scientists present at the meeting have many questions to ask him. Most importantly, they want to see evidence of his claims, including sequencing data from parents and twins to show that genome modifications have been made. They also want evidence that there have been no dangerous mutations off target and to determine if one of the girls is genetically mosaic – a condition in which cell populations within An individual have different genomes.
He will also have to explain if he has an appropriate ethical approval for the job. The fact that he has made so little data available so far, with his ad limited to YouTube videos, has frustrated scientists.
When asked what data she hoped to see presented tomorrow, Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley and a CRISPR pioneer – Cas9, replied, "Something!
Damaging claimsDoudna is concerned that CRISPR may be associated with He's claims, which could be detrimental if babies prove unhealthy.
But she thinks there will remain public support for the editing of embryo genes for reproductive purposes. Surveys have shown that many people are open to altering the human germ line, she says.
The revelations about genetically modified babies have forced Doudna and other scientists to consider the need for a detailed set of criteria for responsible editing of the germ line, which includes embryos, sperm and eggs. These criteria must include the level of uncertainty allowed in the verification process to pursue a proceeding, she said. "There is a potentially positive outcome," she says.
The meeting, which is sponsored by the Hong Kong Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Medicine, published today a statement of non-involvement on the work of He. "We hope that the dialogue at our summit will advance the world's understanding of the problems associated with editing the human genome," the statement said. "Our goal is to help ensure that research on the editing of the human genome is conducted in a responsible manner, in the interest of the entire society." The statement also notes that he must speak on November 28.