An official at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is calling for a halt to the "implantation of edited embryos", following a Chinese researcher's claim that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies using DNA he tweaked, in an effort to inoculate people from HIV. Though the reports are unconfirmed, the announcement is sparking moral outrage from lay people and scientists alike. If the scientist's claims prove true, the newborns are the world's first humans to be genetically modified as embryos.
He also expressed outrage that the babies had been exposed to unnecessary risks.
The appeal of driving similarly ahead with gene-editing techniques is easy to understand.
"The gene surgery worked safely", said Dr. He in a YouTube video. One first-in-human study is testing intravenous infusion of gene-editing ingredients to fight a killer metabolic disease.
On Sunday, Jiankui He claimed to have successfully edited the genes of twin girls, releasing a recorded statement to YouTube about the breakthrough. This technique is banned in the USA, because it may cause unpredictable genetic defects in future generations.
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CRISPR/Cas9 is genetic editing technology adapted from the natural defense mechanisms of archaebacteria - a type of ancient bacteria - that allows scientists to target and edit a specific gene sequence.
The human genome belongs to all of us. Editing particular sequences can change those messages, and CRISPR/Cas9 is the tool that can do that.
The scientist at the centre of the controversy did not appear at the first day of the conference. Or, with the help of scientists, specific messages can be inserted at this site which alter the message of that gene.
In this October 10, 2018 photo, He Jiankui speaks during an interview at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province.
What was allegedly done in this experiment? He says his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease but to disable a gene, called CCR5, that forms a protein doorway that allows HIV to infect a cell.
Mr. Urnov noted that global scientific consensus on genetic editing of embryos has stopped short of implantation and that scientific discovery should be pursued for the most devastating and fatal diseases for which there is an unmet medical need and no viable alternatives.
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He claims to have altered the twins' DNA while they were embryos. Of the 22 embryos edited, 11 were used in six implant attempts. Gene editing on humans is banned in the U.S., notes the report, because modifying genes and making changes in the DNA could possibly move from one generation to the next and there is an ever-present threat to the health of other genes as well. Although China has no laws explicitly banning gene editing in babies, using the procedure does violate guidelines published by China's health ministry in 2003, and goes against global guidelines agreed to at a summit on the issue in 2015.
But there is as yet no independent verification of his claims, which have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal - an omission that the scientist's critics have seized on. He's actions are a clear ethics violation and tread into unknown territory. It's not known if the pregnancy referred to was carried to term, is ongoing, or was terminated.
The reaction from the professional community of scientists and ethicists was swift and essentially universal in its condemnation, including by over 100 of He's colleagues in China.
"Of course it's not ethical", said Qiu, after publicly criticising He's work before the several hundred people in attendance.
In addition, Zhang said that in 2015, "the worldwide research community said it would be irresponsible to proceed with any germline editing without 'broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application.' (This was the consensus statement from the 2015 worldwide Summit on Human Gene Editing.) It is my hope that this year's summit will serve as a forum for deeper conversations about the implications of this news and provide guidance on how we as a global society can best benefit from gene editing". "We still have a lot of work to do to prove and establish that the procedure is actually safe", Musunuru said.
"Before this procedure comes anywhere near clinical practice, we need years of work to show that meddling with the genome of the embryo is not going to cause harm to the future person", she said in a statement.
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