Gene-editing babies a violation of Chinese law, says official

Gene-editing babies a violation of Chinese law, says officialA Chinese government official has declared the research of scientist He Jiankui, who said he created the world’s first gene-edited babies, a violation of Chinese law, and called for all related work to be halted. “The genetically edited infant incident reported by media blatantly violated China’s relevant laws and regulations,” Xu Nanping, a vice-minister for science and technology, told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV Thursday evening. “It has also violated the ethical bottom line that the academic community adheres to. It is shocking and unacceptable.” Earlier this week, national and local authorities said investigations had been launched into Mr He’s work and conduct after videos and interviews from him and his lab were published on Youtube, and by two prominent Western media outlets. The shocking claims have yet to be independently verified by experts and published in a journal, though if true, would represent a monumental leap in biomedical research. Mr He spoke Wednesday in Hong Kong, defending his work at a global industry summit and describing years of secret, self-funded research. He also revealed a second woman was potentially pregnant as a result of his work, though had suspended further work at the moment given international outcry over the disclosure of his research. How Crispr works So far, he’s claimed to have produced two gene-edited baby girls, dubbed “Lulu” and “Nana”, whose DNA was altered to be more resistant to HIV. All couples he recruited for this study had an HIV-positive father, and a non-infected mother. By using a method called Crispr-Cas9, Mr He was able to target specific blocks of DNA with pinpoint precision. While the technology to change DNA has existed for decades, it has improved vastly in recent years allowing scientists to make very targeted changes. Still, that practice is surrounded by intense ethical debate, questions on the regulation of safety and is governed by laws in some countries; in the UK, it is illegal to gene edit human embryos over 14 days old. In China, where scientists have forged ahead with astonishing speed, regulations are still catching up. Globally speaking, the field is so new and cutting edge that experts simply don’t know the full impact and risk involved for a gene edited embryo as it develops into adulthood, and how changed DNA might pass into future generations. In the future, such technology could be used to eradicate inherited illnesses, but it could also pave the way for “designer babies” engineered to have certain traits like hair colour or intelligence. After news of Mr He’s work came to light earlier this week, Chinese scientists were quick to denounce it, as was his institution, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. Then university has said it wasn’t involved in the study, though documents available online about the work included the name of the institution. US professor Michael Deem is also now under investigation by his institution, Rice University, for his involvement in Mr He’s research. Mr Deem advised Mr He’s graduate work at the university. A non-governmental HIV/AIDS organisation, Baihaulin, has acknowledged that it helped Mr He spread the word to recruit participants for his trials, according to state media. Bai Hua, the founder of the group, hung up on repeated calls from the Telegraph on Thursday for comment.



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