A Chinese scientist's claim that he used a powerful new gene-editing technique to change the embryonic DNA of twins drew fire Monday from ethicists and doctors in Massachusetts and from a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped invent the tool. The experiment, which is banned in the USA due to the possibility of these genetic changes affecting future generations, would be the first of its kind ever reported.
Zhang was responding to bombshell claims by He Jiankui of Shenzhen, who said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. In one of those videos, He strongly objects to calling children whose genes have been edited "designer babies" and answers his own question, "Why HIV?" with "safety and value", noting that 100 million people have a "natural genetic variation" in the gene CCR5 that he altered with what he calls "gene surgery".
"I feel a strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example, how to perform things like this, consider morality of the society and consider its impact to the public", He told the AP in an exclusive interview.
Jiankui said he practiced editing mice, monkey and human embryos for several years and has even applied for patents on his scientific methods. "And there are effective treatments if one does contract it", Savulescu said.
Au said going from abandoned human embryos to humans involved other steps in between, like live animal models of gene editing.
"I think this is justifiable", Church said. "It's simply too early and too premature".
Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said: "Genetic editing technology is far from mature and could have unforeseen consequences for the subjects".
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".
"Although I appreciate the global threat posed by HIV, at this stage, the risks of editing embryos to knock out CCR5 seem to outweigh the potential benefits, not to mention that knocking out of CCR5 will likely render a person much more susceptible for West Nile Virus", said Feng Zhang, a Broad core institute member, in a statement. Porteus said he discouraged He and told him "that it was irresponsible, that he could risk the entire field of gene editing by doing this in a cavalier fashion". A pair of twins was born from those embryos, according to the scientist. China outlaws human cloning but not specifically gene editing. However, this rational debate can only take place if all scientists play their part and ensure that all experiments are done in the public interest.
Before He's talk, Dr. George Daley, Harvard Medical School's dean and one of the conference organizers, warned against a backlash to gene editing because of He's experiment.
Some in the science community said it is human experimentation.
"In this ever more competitive global pursuit of applications for gene editing, we hope to be a stand-out", He and his team wrote in an ethics statement previous year.
Baylis said it was also ethically questionable that He chose to address an HIV gene, when there are other less risky ways to prevent HIV. The babies in question were born in China earlier this month, The Associated Press reported. The AP says consent forms described it as an "AIDS vaccine development" program.
In an e-mail, Annas voiced skepticism of He's claim but said there are a number of ethical concerns if the researcher is, in fact, telling the truth.
Others called for extensive scrutiny regarding Jiankui's claims, including one of CRISPR's co-inventors, Dr. Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley, who said that the work needs to be verified before it can be substantiated.
Some staff at some of the other hospitals were kept in the dark about the nature of the research, which He and Deem said was done to keep some participants' HIV infection from being disclosed. "But I believe families need this technology".