A day after a Chinese scientist was known to have helped create the world's first genome-edited babies, researchers fear the startling announcement will hamper their efforts to safely translate gene-editing technology into treatments.
When the scientists met for the Second International Summit on Human Generation in Hong Kong, the conversation constantly appealed to He Jiankui's claim, which has not yet been independently verified, to have impregnated a woman with embryos that had been modified to make them resistant to HIV. infection. The woman gave birth to healthy twin girls this month, said He, a researcher at the genome edition of the South China University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, in a video posted on YouTube.
The statement provoked commotion and indignation on the part of the scientists, who questioned the justification of Him to carry out a preliminary and potentially risky procedure in people, without an international scientific consensus on whether such an experiment should be carried out and how. Even the university itself distanced itself from the results. Now scientists are also raising the possibility of a chilling effect on gene editing.
"I'm worried about an instinctive reaction that could make the countries that are still working on the regulations unnecessarily hamper this research," says Robin Lovell Badge, a development biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, who attends the summit. today until November 29.
Jin Soo Kim, a molecular biologist at Seoul National University and assistant to the meeting, has been trying to persuade the South Korean government to relax its strict regulations on embryo research. The country does not allow embryo research, including the use of gene editing tools such as CRISPR – Cas9. Now Kim is concerned that his claims will lead to further restrictions in South Korea.
Such concerns are particularly serious in China, where scientists are sensitive to the country's reputation as a wild west of biomedical research. The China Genetics Society and the China Society for Stem Cell Research issued a joint statement on November 27 saying: "We strongly condemn it for extreme responsibility, both scientific and ethical."
The statement of the groups also distanced itself from He's work of conventional science in China. "The experiment performed by Him is an individual activity," he said. They also ask for government investigations.
On November 27, China's national health commission ordered the Guangdong health commission, where the university is located, to investigate. The Shenzhen government also announced an investigation into the ethical approval that is stated in the test notice published online.
Rosario Isasi, a legal scholar at the University of Miami in Florida, says that scientists in China fear that the country has acquired an unfair reputation for being negligent with its regulation of scientific research. This latest announcement will not help, says Isasi, who has been working with the Chinese Academy of Sciences as an international member. "For the Chinese this is painful and they are tired," she says. In 2015, a research group in China started a debate on the use of gene editing in human embryos when publishing the first use of this type of technology, although in that case embryos were not implanted.
Paula Cannon, who studies HIV at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, says the news could also worsen the stigma of having HIV. According to him, the procedure is, in his opinion, to be HIV positive as a condition so terrible that people need to be genetically modified to overcome the fact of being susceptible to infection. "The damage he has done in the field of gene editing, to HIV positive individuals and their allies, to Chinese scientists, it's just horrible," she says.
Other researchers think it is too early to say whether a violent reaction will affect support for the genome-editing research and are eager to hear what He has to say at tomorrow's meeting, when he is scheduled to give a talk.
"The researchers here will be circumspect, they will see the reaction, there have been many negative reactions, a lot will depend on what we learn from He Jiankui," says the assistant to the meeting, Dana Carroll, biochemist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
The scientists at the meeting have many questions for him. Above all, they want to see evidence of their claims, including the sequencing of data from parents and twins to show that genome editions were made. They also want evidence that there were no dangerous mutations outside the target and to determine if any of the girls are genetically mosaic, a condition in which the cell populations of an individual have different genomes.
You will also have to explain if you had the proper ethical approval for the job. That He has put so little information available so far, with his announcement limited to YouTube videos, has frustrated scientists.
When asked what data she hopes to see in the future, Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley, and a pioneer of CRISPR – Cas9, says: "Anything!"
Harmful claimsDoudna is concerned that CRISPR may be associated with His claims, which could be harmful if the babies are not healthy.
But she believes there will continue to be public support for the editing of embryo genes for reproductive purposes. Surveys have shown that there are many people open to editing the human germ line, she says.
The revelations about babies with genetic issues have forced Doudna and other scientists to contemplate the need for a detailed set of criteria for responsible editing of the "germ line", which involves embryos, sperm and eggs. Those criteria should include what level of uncertainty in the editing process is permissible to proceed with a procedure, she says. "There is a potentially positive outcome," she says.
The meeting, which is sponsored by the Hong Kong Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the National Academy of Sciences of the United States and the National Academy of Medicine of the United States, issued a statement without commitment on the work of I have today. "We hope that the dialogue at our summit will further advance the world's understanding of the problems related to the editing of the human genome," says the statement. "Our goal is to help ensure that human genome editing research is done responsibly, for the benefit of the whole society." The statement also notes the next talk He will be on November 28.