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China science

Chinese scientists condemn ‘crazy’ and ‘unethical’ gene-editing experiment

  • More than 120 researchers sign open letter criticising He Jiankui after he claimed to have been responsible for world’s first gene-edited babies
PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 11:24pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 12:39pm

Chinese scientists have rounded on a colleague who claimed to have conducted an experiment that led to the birth of the world’s first genetically edited babies, describing it as “crazy” and “unethical”.

More than 120 Chinese scientists signed a letter condemning the claim by He Jiankui, a biologist with the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen.

“The project completely ignored the principles of biomedical ethics, conducting experiments on humans without proving it’s safe,” said Qiu Zilong, a neuroscience researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai who wrote the letter.

“We can only describe such behaviour as crazy.”

The letter was published on social media on late Monday and was signed by scientists at some of China’s leading research universities, such as Peking University and Tsinghua, as well as overseas institutions, including Stanford in the US and Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

Officials told Thepaper.cn that the Medical Ethics Committee in Shenzhen had opened an investigation into the experiment.

Earlier in the day, the city’s Health and Family Planning Commission said the experiment had not been registered with the medical ethics commission.

The scientists’ letter said a major risk from gene editing was the so-called “off-target effect”, which would result in other genes having their functions disrupted.

“The gene-editing technique used in the experiment is nothing new,” Qiu said. “But scientists across the world won’t, or would not dare to, do it because of the off-target risks and the social impact it could have.”

He said he had used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR-cas9, which alters DNA to supply genes that are missing or disables one that is causing problems.

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The scientist said he had given the babies immunity to HIV by disabling a gene called CCR5, which produces a protein that acts as a receptor for the virus, causing it to spread across the human body.

But Rao Yi, a renowned biologist with the Peking University, said this could carry additional risks and cited experiments on mice that showed “disabled or missing CCR5 could lead to cardiovascular diseases”.

Immunologists such as Zhang Linqi, from Tsinghua University, said the gene He claimed to have edited was critical to the human immune system and disabling or knocking it out could lead to unforeseen diseases.

The trial was approved and conducted by Shenzhen HarMoniCare Women and Children’s Hospital, according to documents submitted by the research team to the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry, a database affiliated with the World Health Organisation.

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The document suggested that an ethics review committee at the hospital had signed the approval paper, but Qin Suji, the former director of medical affairs who left the hospital last month, denied he signed it, saying “the signatures could be fabricated”.

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