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China orders gene-editing scientist to halt work

Ling / Imaginechina / AFP

Officials call He Jiankui's experiments "immoral."

China is cracking down on the scientist who says he helped in the birth of twins whose genomes were edited.

The People’s Republic said Thursday it is investigating He Jiankui and called his actions “immoral.” Beijing has suspended his work.

Like many countries, China allows gene-editing experiments on embryos for research purposes, but only if they remained viable for no more than 14 days. In other words, it’s okay to edit the genome of an embryo, but that nascent human life must not be allowed to develop as a pregnancy and be born.

U.S, laws prohibit scientists from pursuing such research, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told STAT. “It was illegal before last week and it’s illegal now,” Collins said. “And until there’s a strong reason to change that perspective, it will continue to be so here in the United States.”

Dr. He announced on Monday that he used the powerful but not yet fully tested CRISPR-Cas9 technique to edit a gene in an IVF-created embryo, giving the resulting twins, he claimed, protection from the virus that causes AIDS. The girls’ father reportedly is HIV-positive, and He said he was doing the work to help such people recover a sense of hope in life.

According to the New York Times, Xu Nanping, China’s vice minister of science and technology, said He’s work was still being investigated, but based on news reports, he said, He appeared to have “blatantly violated China’s relevant laws and regulations” and broken “the bottom line of morality and ethics that the academic community adheres to.”

“It is shocking and unacceptable,”  Xu was quoted by the state broadcaster China Central Television on Thursday as saying. “We are resolutely opposed to it.”

He’s announcement, on the eve of an international symposium about gene-editing, held in Hong Kong, generated strong reaction from scientists and ethicists around the world, many of whom warned that the safety of CRISPR.

Concerns include the possibility that editing a gene to favor resistance to one disease may leave the person open to infection for another. Also, there is continued wariness of CRISPR because the editing will affect the genes of successive generations.

On Monday, a group of 122 Chinese scientists issued a statement calling Dr. He’s actions “crazy” and his claims “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”

Collins said the NIH was taking preliminary steps to investigate a Rice University researcher who served as He’s graduate advisor when He pursued graduate study at the Houston university and who has acknowledged participating in his protege’s research.

“I think all of us are wondering about the role of Michael Deem,” Collins told STAT, “who by his description was present at the consenting of couples that took part in this gene-editing enterprise.” The health science website said:

Since Deem is an American scientist at an NIH grantee institution, Collins said, the agency has requested additional information from the university. Rice has already denied knowledge of He’s work or Deem’s role in it, and on Monday announced it had begun its own investigation. Deem has not responded to requests for comment.



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