Gene-edited babies experiment in China ‘crazy’, 120 scientists say in damning letter

'A Pandora's box has been opened but we still might have a glimmer of hope to close it before it's too late'

Jane Dalton
Tuesday 27 November 2018 10:54 GMT
First gene-edited babies reported in China

The creation of what are believed to be the first gene-edited babies has been condemned as “crazy” and unethical by more than 100 scientists.

An open letter from the mostly Chinese scientists says using technology to edit human embryo genes was risky and unjustified, and harmed the reputation and development of the biomedical community in the country.

Professor He Jiankui has said he tweaked the DNA of the embryos of twin girls, born a few weeks ago, to prevent them from contracting HIV.

In videos posted online, he defended what he claimed to have achieved, using technology called CRISPR-Cas9.

But the scientists’ letter said: “The biomedical ethics review for this so-called research exists in name only. Conducting direct human experiments can only be described as crazy.

“A Pandora’s box has been opened. We still might have a glimmer of hope to close it before it’s too late,” said the letter, written in Chinese and signed by about 120 scientists.

“This is a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science, especially in the field of biomedical research. It is extremely unfair to most scholars in China who are diligent in research and innovation,” the letter said.

It stated that there was “a huge risk in any attempt to directly perform human embryo transformation and attempting to produce a baby”.

Yang Zhengang, a Fudan University professor, said he signed the letter because gene editing was “very dangerous”.

The Southern University of Science and Technology, where Professor He holds an associate professorship, said it had been unaware of the research project and he had been on leave without pay since February

The university said the experiment was conducted outside its school of biology, and its academic committee believed such work seriously violated academic ethics.

China’s National Health Commission said it was highly concerned and had ordered health officials to investigate.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology that allows scientists to essentially “cut and paste” DNA. It has raised hopes of genetic fixes for diseases but there are concerns about its safety and ethics.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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