With the latest incidents involving the arrest of Meng Wanzhou (Huawei Princess), Chinese scientist He Jiankui's project on babies born with edited genomes disappeared from media.
On November 29, 2018, the organizing committee of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong released the statement “We heard an unexpected and deeply disturbing claim (from He Jiankui) that human embryos had been edited and implanted, resulting in a pregnancy and the birth of twins. Even if the modifications are verified, the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform with international norms."
There were similar criticisms from the DNA research community on how He Jiankui had used the genome-editing technique to modify the CCR5 gene in two embryos, which he then implanted in a woman. The gene encodes a protein that some common strains of HIV use to infect immune cells.
I have recently spoke to friends and relatives working in the genome research community to get a better understanding of the current status of this incident, their preliminary evaluations, and their concerns.
Many scientists questioned how He can go so far with his project without opposition from other Chinese scientists and the government of China. He works for the Southern University of Science and Technology in the province of Guangdong.
On November 27, China’s national health ministry called on the Province government of Guangdong to investigate He, accusing him of transgressing a 2003 health-ministry guideline, which is not a law and has no clear penalties attached to it. Since then, the university criticized his claims and distanced itself from his work.
Almost in unison, the laboratory web page hosted by He's university and various other government praising He's accomplishments disappeared or became inaccessible. It's not clear if these actions are related to the announcement by Mr. He and the publicity it subsequently attracts. He went back to Shenzhen after his talk at the summit. However, He missed a planned appearance at the summit on 29 November. He claimed that he will remain in China to cooperate fully with all inquiries about his work.
Many scientists also questioned He's claim. They said that an independent body should confirm He's scientific claims by performing an in-depth comparison of the parents’ and children’s genes. Scientists out of China want to visit He's laboratory to analyze the data. He said that he will invite other researchers to do an independent investigation.
He also says that he has submitted studies on his human gene-editing research to journals for publication by the end of the year but has not specified in which journal. But even if this happens, strict Chinese genetic-resources laws would prevent He from publishing the gene sequences of the parents or the children, and without those, scientists would have a difficult time verifying his claims.
Without any publications for review, some scientists are examining He's presentation at the Hong Kong Summit to try and understand how the twins' genomes were edited — and any potential consequences of these changes. Data that He presented in his talk suggests that the babies’ cells harbour multiple edited versions of the CCR5 gene, with different-sized DNA deletions. This can be caused when CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – the basis for genome editing technology) edits some early embryo cells differently to others. In other words, the editing is far from “perfect”.
Another prominent scientist pointed out that the CCR5 deletions that He claimed to introduce into the babies’ cells by CRISPR gene editing are not identical to the delta-32 mutation within the CCR5 that inactivates the gene. Therefore, the suggested immunity to HIV infection cannot be ascertained.
Next time, we will continue to discuss the view of scientists on the questions relating to ethics when it comes to the alteration of genes on human beings.
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