Chinese scientist, assisted by Rice professor, claims first gene-edited babies
A Chinese researcher, assisted by a Houston professor, has created the world’s first genetically edited babies. The researcher’s claim, issued on Monday, triggered global outrage because of concerns the DNA changes would be passed to future generations and could cause harm.
The experiment, unpublished and unverified, was intended not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to make the babies’ cells resistant to infection by HIV, said He Jiankui, the lead scientist. Michael Deem, a professor of physics and bioengineering at Rice University, worked with him on the research, which is banned in the United States.
Rice has begun a “full investigation” of Deem’s involvement in the research, the school said in a statement Monday. Rice had “no knowledge of the work” and the statement added that “regardless of where it was conducted, the work as described in press reports violates scientific conduct guidelines.”
Officials at Rice called the work “inconsistent with ethical norms of the scientific community and Rice University.”
The research is also being investigated by China’s National Health Commission and the Southern University of Science and Technology in the city of Shenzhen, where He holds an associate professorship. In a letter, more than 120 Chinese scientists called the experiment “crazy” and said it dealt a huge blow to the global reputation of Chinese science.
The news was first reported Monday by The Associated Press, which said He revealed the work Monday in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that begins Tuesday and earlier in exclusive interviews with the AP.
“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make an example,” AP quoted Deem as saying. “Society will decide what to do next.”
The extent of Deem’s involvement in the work is unclear. He did not respond to a Houston Chronicle phone call and email.
AP reported that Deem, He’s adviser when He got a doctorate in biophysics from Rice in 2010, worked with He after he returned to China. AP reported Deem was present in China when “participants gave their consent and said that he ‘absolutely’ thinks they were able to understand the risks.”
AP added that Deem holds what he called “a small stake” in He’s two companies. Deem is on the scientific advisory boards of the companies.
The research involved the alteration of embryos of seven couples getting fertility treatment. The implantations produced one pregnancy, which He says resulted in the delivery of twins a few weeks ago. In a YouTube video, He says that “two beautiful little Chinese girls named Lulu and Nana came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies.”
The boast did not win over many scientists, who said the field is not yet ready for such clinical experimentation and that the potential benefits aren’t worth the risks.
Art Beaudet, a Baylor College of Medicine professor of molecular and human genetics, said he suspects the team was “more interested in glory than what’s really in the best interest of the families and the twins.”
He said changing one mutation in one gene carries the theoretical possibility of causing severe disability that might not be obvious for years, such as some kind of cancer. He said that “it’s hard to justify how at this point, this work makes sense for couples. The risk-benefit is just not attractive.”
The American Society of Human Genetics released a statement, “given the morning’s reports of infants possibly born whose genomes were edited,” reaffirming its 2017 position that it is “premature to perform genome editing that culminates in human pregnancy.” The paper notes 10 other global organizations with expertise in medical genetics, genetics research and genetic counseling share the position.
The statement outlines scientific and societal steps necessary before implementation of the clinical applications of genomic editing is considered, such as establishing a compelling medical rationale and scientific evidence base, an ethical justification and a transparent public process to solicit and incorporate stakeholder input. It notes it supports publicly funded, in vitro research into potential clinical applications.
Genomic editing is one of science’s most cutting-edge technologies, thanks to recent advances. A new tool makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that’s a cause of problems.
The tool has been used recently to treat deadly diseases in adults, when the changes are confined to that person. The editing of sperm, eggs or embryos is not allowed in the United States, except for lab research, because those changes can be inherited.
Although some scientists questioned the veracity of He’s claim, Harvard biologist and genetics pioneer George Church told the online publication Stat News that he’d been in contact with the team, had seen the data and the claims were “probably accurate.”
Chris Scott, a Baylor ethicist, said it was “only a matter of time before we saw a story like this.”
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” said Scott, associate director of health policy at Baylor’s Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy.
“It escaped in 2015 when the Chinese first edited non-viable embryos,” Scott said. “Then Oregon researchers edited viable embryos under strict ethical guidelines and didn’t implant them. This was the next step.”
Scott said one of his concerns is that attention to the event in China may cause other rogue scientists to perform the procedure.
Though all the men in the experiment were infected with HIV and all the women were not, the editing was not aimed at preventing the risk of transmission, already small because the infections were heavily suppressed by standard HIV medicines Instead, AP reported, the goal was to introduce a genetic variation that makes it more difficult for HIV to infect white blood cells, protecting the child from ever contracting HIV.
AP reported that Deem said he worked with He on vaccine research at Rice and considers the gene editing similar to a vaccine. “That might be a layman’s way of describing it,” Deem told the AP.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.