Chinese Government Calls for a Halt to He Jiankui's CRISPR Embryo Research

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China’s government has ordered the research of He Jiankui be halted. He Jiankui is the Southern University of Science and Technology of China researcher who used CRISPR to alter the embryos of seven couples to make them resistant to HIV. To date, a set of twins were born and yesterday He reported another pregnancy.

He’s research has not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal yet. He made his announcement at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing held at the University of Hong Kong earlier this week. The details of the research were met with widespread condemnation and criticism by researchers globally.

As the summit wrapped up, the organizers released a statement “identifying areas of research and clinical use that could proceed within current regulatory and governance protocols.” It also broadly criticized He’s work.

The statement said, in part, “Making changes in the DNA of embryos or gametes could allow parents who carry disease-causing mutations to have healthy, genetically related children. However, heritable genome editing of either embryos or gametes poses risks that remain difficult to evaluate. Concerns persist that changes may be made in only some cells of early-stage embryos, leaving unedited cells to perpetuate a disease. Germline editing could produce unintended harmful effects for not just an individual but also for that individual’s descendants. Changes to a particular trait may have unanticipated effects on other traits that could vary from person to person and in response to environmental influences.”

That’s a very clear and reasoned rebuke of He and his research, much milder than what many other researchers have said, calling it “monstrous,” “unconscionable” and “a grave abuse of human rights.”

More than 100 Chinese scientists signed a letter condemning the research, which in part said, “The bioethics approval for this so-called ‘study’ was insufficient. We can only use the word ‘crazy’ to describe the experiment conducted directly on human beings.”

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He, who was assisted by Michael Deem, a professor at Rice University in Houston, used CRISPR gene editing during in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. All the men in the couples had under-control HIV infection. Their sperm was “washed” to separate it from the semen, where the HIV is present. A single sperm was inserted into a single egg to create an embryo. They then used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to disable a gene called CCR5. CCR5 creates a protein that allows HIV to enter a cell. The goal was to modify the embryos’ genomes to make them resistant to HIV infection.

Of the twins born, this was only partially successful. In one of the twins, He reported, both copies of the CCR5 gene were disabled; in the other, only a single copy was disabled. How much—if any—immunity this will provide is unknown (and ethically untestable). It is also unknown if there were any negative side effects.

Chinese Vice Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping told state news organization CCTV that the ministry is strongly opposed to the research. Xu claimed He’s research actions were illegal and unacceptable, and an investigation had been ordered. Independent investigations have also been launched by Southern and Rice universities.

For his part, He Jiankui left the conference before the conclusion. He was scheduled to speak again today, but left Hong Kong. He sent a message through a spokesman that said, “I will remain in China, my home country, and cooperate fully with all inquiries about my work. My raw data will be made available for third party review.”

Although some researchers have said this is an example of the scientific community’s inability or unwillingness to police itself, others disagree. One of the conference organizers, Alta Charo, a lawyer and bioethicist with the University of Wisconsin, told AP that there are already some rules in place that should have prevented He’s actions. “I think the failure was his, not the scientific community.”

Another of the organizers, Victor Dzau, president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, which also sponsored the conference, stated that gene editing for reproductive purposes might one day be considered, “but only when there is compelling medical need,” and where the risks and benefits are completely understood. “Not following these guidelines,” he added, “would be an irresponsible act.”

Feng Zhang, a scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is one of the researchers who developed CRISPR, called for a moratorium on CRISPR experiments like those conducted by He. “Given the current early state of genome editing technology, I’m in favor of a moratorium on implantation of edited embryos … until we have come up with a thoughtful set of safety requirements first.”

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