Scientists and experts in bioethics reacted with shock, anger and alarm on Monday (local time) to the statement by a Chinese researcher that he helped make the world's first babies genetically edited.
He Jiankui, of the University of Science and Technology of Southern China, said he modified the DNA of the twins born earlier this month to try to help them resist a possible future infection with the AIDS virus, a dubious, ethical target. and scientifically.
There is no independent confirmation of what He says He did, and it has not been published in a journal where other experts could review it.
He revealed it on Monday in Hong Kong, where a gene-editing conference is being held, and previously in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.
The reaction to the affirmation was fast and hard.
More than 100 scientists signed a petition calling for more oversight in gene-editing experiments.
The university in which he resides said he will hire experts to investigate, saying the work "seriously violates ethics and academic standards."
A spokesman for He said he has been absent from teaching since early this year, but remains in college and has a laboratory at the university.
The authorities in Shenzhen, the city where the laboratory is located, also started an investigation.
And Rice University in the United States said it will investigate the participation of physics professor Michael Deem. This type of gene editing is prohibited in the USA. UU., Although Deem said he worked with He on the project in China.
"Regardless of where it was carried out, this work, as described in the press reports, violates the standards of scientific conduct and is inconsistent with the ethical standards of the scientific community and Rice University," the school said. it's a statement.
Gene editing is a way of rewriting DNA, the code of life, to try to supply a missing gene that is needed or to disable one that is causing problems. Only recently has it been tested in adults to treat serious diseases.
The edition of ovules, spermatozoids or embryos is different, since it makes permanent changes that can happen to future generations. Their risks are unknown, and leading scientists have called for a moratorium on their use, except in laboratory studies until more is learned.
They include Feng Zhang and Jennifer Doudna, inventors of a powerful new tool called CRISPR-cas9 that was reportedly used on Chinese babies during fertility treatments when they were conceived.
"Not only do I see this as risky, but I am also deeply concerned about the lack of transparency" at work, said Zhang, a scientist at MIT's Broad Institute, in a statement. Medical advances should be discussed openly with patients, doctors, scientists and society, he wrote.
Doudna, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the organizers of the Hong Kong conference, said she met with her on Monday to tell her about her work and that she and others plan to let him speak at the conference on Wednesday, as originally planned.
"None of the reported work has gone through the peer review process," and the conference aims to solve important problems, such as whether gene editing is appropriate and when, he said.
Another conference leader, Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, said he is concerned that other scientists will try this in the absence of regulations or a ban.
"I would worry if this initial report opened the floodgates to a wider practice," Daley said.
Professor of Law at Notre Dame, O. Carter Snead, former presidential adviser on bioethics, called the report "deeply disturbing, if true."
"No matter how well-intentioned, this intervention is dangerous, unethical and represents a new dangerous moment in the history of mankind," he wrote in an email. "These children, and the children of their children, have irrevocably changed their future without consent, ethical review or meaningful deliberation."
Concerns have been expressed about how he says he proceeded, and whether the participants really understood the potential risks and benefits before enrolling to attempt a pregnancy with edited embryos. He says he started work in 2017, but only notified him earlier this month in a Chinese registry of clinical trials.
Concern over the secret has been compounded by the lack of proof of his claims. He said the parents involved refused to be identified or interviewed, and he did not say where they live or where the work was done.
An independent expert even questioned whether the claim could be a hoax. Deem, the Rice scientist who says he participated in the work, called it ridiculous.
"Of course the work happened," said Deem. "I met the parents, I was there for the informed consent of the parents."