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China science

Chinese expert in bioethics slams mainland scientist He Jiankui who claims to have created the world’s first gene-edited children

  • Qiu Renzong, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said He’s reported actions were done with ‘the least degree of ethical responsibility and acceptability’
  • Scientist He revealed on Monday twin sisters had been born in China this month from embryos he and a team of researchers had modified
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 7:13pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 9:19pm

A top mainland Chinese expert in bioethics has criticised the actions of a Chinese scientist who shocked the world by claiming to have created the world’s first gene-edited children, saying that it “was a practice with the least degree of ethical justifiability and acceptability”.

The comments, by Professor Qiu Renzong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, came as He Jiankui, a scientist from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, revealed on Monday that healthy twin sisters were born in China this month from embryos he and a team of researchers had modified to disable an HIV-related gene.

Speaking at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, which began on Tuesday at the University of Hong Kong, Qiu made heavy criticism of He, if news reports He had effected germ line genome modification for enhancement were true.

Scientist who ‘created gene-edited children’ to speak at Hong Kong summit

“This is a practice with the least degree of ethical justifiability and acceptability,” Qiu said.

The Shenzhen scientist is expected to speak about human embryo editing on the Wednesday session of the summit. His name still featured as one of the speakers on the conference programme distributed on Tuesday.

Qiu said it was highly difficult to assess the risk-benefit ratio in such modification work for improving one’s existing condition or for medical purposes, and added that such work should not be the priority of scientists.

He said that, as there currently existed a convenient and practical method to prevent HIV infection, using genome editing for preventive purposes was like “using a cannon to shoot a bird”.

He warned that editing genomes for prevention or enhancement would change the gene pool of the human species.

“How could Dr He and his team change the gene pool of human species without considering the need to consult other parts of the species?” Qiu said.

While He claimed that he had received approval for his project from Shenzhen HarMoniCare Women and Children’s Hospital, Qiu questioned the validity of the review.

“Maybe this review is a fraud,” said Qiu, adding that the hospital was not the institutional review board of the university where He belonged to.

It is unfortunate that [He’s] work has not yet been peer-reviewed, and so there is not an independent analysis offered by experts
Professor David Baltimore

Qiu said that the Chinese government needed to strengthen its regulation of the area of research, saying that the existing regulation was not deterrent enough.

The scientist at the centre of the controversy did not appear at the first day of the conference. The chairman of the summit organising committee Professor David Baltimore said he was uncertain what He would be presenting in the conference on Wednesday. But he assumed He would give his talk as planned.

Without commenting directly on He’s controversially claimed work, Baltimore said: “It is unfortunate that his work has not yet been peer-reviewed, and so there is not an independent analysis offered by experts.”

Baltimore said speakers for the conference were chosen according to their publication record and their status in the field.

On Thursday, the organising committee of the summit will present a report summarising on how to carry forward the development of gene editing.

HIV doctor says stick to safe sex after He Jiankui’s controversial claim

In defence of his work, He earlier said that the modification work might not be applicable for the general public, but that it would valuable to help a few affected and very high-risk families. He said that safety was his number one concern above anything else.

He said the gene his team had chosen to work with, CCR5, was one of the best-studied. He added that about 100 million people naturally have a genetic variation that disables CCR5, giving them protection against HIV.