Canadian researchers have added their voices to widespread worldwide condemnation of a Chinese scientist who says he helped create genetically modified twin girls using a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR. Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology, where He works, has also launched an investigation.
The more information that comes out about the Chinese researcher who edited the genes of two embryos-now twin newborn girls-the more other experts are concerned about the process the scientist followed, the gene he targeted and the results he achieved.
The Chinese scientist who says he helped make the world's first gene-edited babies veered off a traditional career path, keeping much of his research secret in pursuit of a larger goal - making history.
This is not the first time Chinese researchers have experimented with human embryo technology.
He also said the university where he works had been "unaware of the study's conduct". He said the work has been submitted to a journal, but he did not specify which publication. Such "off-target" effects are a common result of this form of gene editing and are one of the reasons many scientists believe it is still too early to test the technology on babies. Zhang acknowledged that regulating this type of research would be hard but said it was important to come up with "a set of requirements for how to put forward a comprehensive and informative application for experimental medicine development".
He's research focuses on genome sequencing technology, bioinformatics and genome editing. He stressed that Catholics do not need to automatically consider all gene editing to be problematic, but "need to be attentive to where the dangers are".
In recent years, scientists have edited genes in adults to treat diseases but the changes are confined to that person.
China's National Health Commission ordered an "immediate investigation" into the case on Monday, the official Xinhua news agency reported, while the Shenzhen hospital meant to have approved the research programme denied its involvement.
Gene editing for reproductive purposes might be considered in the future "but only when there is compelling medical need", with clear understanding of risks and benefits, and certain other conditions, said Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, one of the conference sponsors. In most cases, couples at risk of transmitting a genetic disease to their children are able to prevent transmission using established techniques of screening before birth or even before an embryo is implanted via IVF.
The Associated Press reported on the claims of a Chinese researcher, who announced that twin girls were born with "a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life". I personally don't think that it's medically necessary.
"Certainly this is something that the genetics world all thought would possibly happen one day, but I think we were hoping it would happen with a lot more regulation", said Ahmed, a genetic counsellor at a private DNA testing lab in Toronto.
Following He's address Wednesday, Nobel laureate David Baltimore said that "it would be irresponsible to proceed" with similar experiments "unless and until the safety issues had been dealt with". Expanding on his motivations in a YouTube video, He spoke about discrimination that HIV-positive people still face in China and many developing countries. The CCR5 gene enables HIV to enter and infect immune system cells.
He reportedly worked with a volunteer couple in which the male partner was HIV positive.
"This is a truly unacceptable development", Jennifer Doudna, the University of California, Berkeley, RNA biologist who co-invented CRISPR-based gene editing, tells the AP. Southern University's He said the twin girls' health would have to be monitored for the next 18 years, and beyond that into adulthood if they give their consent.
Other researchers noted, however, that there are far less controversial methods for protecting children from their parents' HIV infection.
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