Scientists in China abhor gene editing that geneticist claims

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Chinese officials and scientists denounced on Tuesday the claims of a geneticist who said he had created the first gene-edited babies, and a hospital linked to his research suggested its ethical approval had been forged.

More than 100 scientists said in an open letter the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to edit the genes of human embryos was risky, unjustified and harmed the reputation and development of the biomedical community in China.

In videos posted online, scientist He Jiankui defended what he said he had achieved – embryonic gene editing to help protect twin baby girls born this month from infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“Pandora’s box has been opened. We still might have a glimmer of hope to close it before it’s too late,” the scientists said in their letter, a copy of which was posted by the Chinese news website the Paper.

“The biomedical ethics review for this so-called research exists in name only. Conducting direct human experiments can only be described as crazy,” the approximately 120 scientists said in the Chinese-language letter.

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

China’s Genetics Society and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research said in a statement He had acted as an “individual” and his work posed “tremendous safety risks for the research subjects”.

“We believe the research led by He is strongly against both the Chinese regulations and the consensus reached by the international science community,” the two groups said in a statement posted online.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology that allows scientists to essentially cut-and-paste DNA, raising hope of genetic fixes for disease. However, there are also concerns about its safety and ethics.

(Graphic explaining the Crispr DNA editing technique, tmsnrt.rs/2ReKG1R)

He, who is due to speak at a summit on human genome editing at the University of Hong Kong on Wednesday, did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The Shenzhen Harmonicare Hospital, listed on China’s online clinical trial registry as having given ethical approval for He’s experiment, denied having ever taken part in any clinical operations relating to “gene-edited babies”.

The signatures on the online form were suspected of having been forged and “no relevant meeting of the Medical Ethics Committee of the hospital in fact took place”, Hong Kong-listed Harmonicare Medical Holdings said in a statement.

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