Thursday, 27 June, 2019

'MONSTROUS' scientist 'makes world's first gene-edited babies' in HIV test

Chinese researcher He Jiankui									Mark Schiefelbein  AP Chinese researcher He Jiankui Mark Schiefelbein AP
Sandra Phillips | 27 November, 2018, 06:13

The Southern University of Science and Technology in China has launched an investigation following reports that one of its researchers carried out unauthorized gene editing in the cells of twin girls born earlier this month.

After creating an embryo via in vitro fertilization, the doctor used the gene-editing tool CRISPR (short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to surgically change one out of 3 billion letters of the embryo's DNA code, in order to build in a resistance to HIV infection.

Canadian bioethicist Francoise Baylis says that if He's claims are verified, she's disappointed that he chose to move forward altering the DNA, a change that will be passed on from generation to generation.

He told the AP he felt a strong responsibility "not just to make a first, but also to make an example" for future research.

"If this is a false report, it is scientific misconduct and deeply irresponsible", Robert Winston, emeritus professor of fertility studies and professor of science and society at Imperial College London, tells BBC News.

Six other couples participated in the researcher's attempt to identify a genetic trait that would resist the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

And Rice University in the United States said it will investigate the involvement of physics professor Michael Deem.

A US scientist said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

He claims that he used a tool known as CRISPR-cas9, which can insert or deactivate certain genes.

If confirmed, the feat would be the first of its kind - and ethically controversial. JK spoke of his study this week in Hong Kong, notes the report, to one organizer of an worldwide conference on gene editing and has also spoken to the AP on what his research has found so far.

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There are high hopes these molecular scissors may aid in curing diseases such as cancer or others conditions - but scientists around the world had agreed careful regulation was required before the technology was used in humans.

The Chinese researcher said he practiced editing mice, monkey and human embryos in the lab for several years and has applied for patents on his methods.

But the claim "really reinforces the urgent need to confine the use of gene-editing in human embryos to settings where there's a clear unmet medical need and where there's no alternative viable approach", says Doudna.

"This is far too premature", added Dr Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. Annas also asserted that He is "unqualified as a physicist to deal with patients, touch them, or get consent from them for a medical procedure (we don't know about the physicians involved, but on the surface, they seem to have acted unethically as well)".

Gene editing could potentially stop diseases by removing harmful embryo coding.

"I think this is justifiable", Church said of trying to combat it.

The CRISPR tool is a recently developed tool for adding necessary genes or disabling harmful ones to treat diseases in adults, though the US only allows it to be used in lab research.

The team led by Jiankui He focused on removing a gene called CCR5, critical for the HIV virus to enter into the cells. First, the sperm cells were "washed" to separate them from semen, this is where HIV could possibly be found. Using the new tool on sperm, eggs, or embryos means descendants will also inherit the changes. After the embryos had grown for three to five days, He took cells from each embryos to check to see if the editing had worked. Couples could choose whether to use edited or unedited embryos for pregnancy attempts. One twin, according to He's tests, showed signs that both copies of the CCR5 gene it inherited (one from its mother and one from its father) were successfully altered, while the other twin showed that one version of the gene it inherited was altered.

Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of genome editing from the University of California, Berkeley, said that the experiment appeared to be a "clear break" from the cautious and transparent approach recommended by worldwide leaders.

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