A Chinese scientist’s claim to have created a gene-edited baby has been met with an outpouring of condemnation, with critics voicing alarm at what they described as a disregard for biomedical ethics.
Approximately 120 scientists released a letter condemning the research, Reuters reported. The Chinese-language letter called the gene manipulation a “Pandora’s box,” warning, “The biomedical ethics review for this so-called research exists in name only. Conducting direct human experiments can only be described as crazy.”
Earlier this week, Chinese researcher He Jiankui claimed that he had altered embryos for seven couples, resulting in one twin pregnancy so far. There is no independent confirmation of this claim, the Associated Press noted.
He says his goal was to edit embryos to give them the ability to resist HIV infection, by disabling the CCR5 gene, which allows HIV to enter a cell.
Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology of China, where He is an associate professor, said in a statement that the researcher had not made the school aware of the gene editing he was doing.
According to Business Insider, the university said He had been on unpaid leave since this February and was not expected to return until January 2021. It is not clear why he had been placed on unpaid leave.
The university said that the use of genetic editing technology in human embryo research constitutes a serious violation of academic ethics. It announced that it would be conducting an investigation into He’s work.
He says he used a technology known as CRISPR to edit sections of the human genome, performing the procedure on embryonic humans. The technology, which selectively “snips” and trims areas of the genome and replaces it with strands of desired DNA, has previously been used on adult humans and other species. CRISPR technology has only recently been used to treat deadly diseases in adults, and limited experiments have been performed on animals.
Catholic bioethics experts have warned that while gene editing may sometimes be morally acceptable, it poses numerous ethical challenges that must be addressed in order to ensure its legitimacy.
Chinese officials and scientific organizations also issued harsh condemnations of the reported gene editing.
The Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research and China’s Genetics Society released a joint statement saying He’s experimentation posed “tremendous safety risks for the research subjects” and violated “the consensus reached by the international science community,” Reuters reported.
Xinhua’s official news agency also rejected the experimentation, stressing that ethical standards must not be ignored in scientific research.
The Shenzhen government medical ethics committee is reportedly investigating the matter.