China orders halt to gene-editing after outcry over babies

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China orders halt to gene-editing after outcry over babies

China's government has ordered a halt to work by a medical team that claimed to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies.

The scientist revealed his claims in Hong Kong to an organizer of an global conference on gene editing, and an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.

He claimed on Monday at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong to have altered the DNA of twin girls born a few weeks ago to bestow lifetime resistance to HIV infection. Mainstream scientists have condemned the experiment, and universities and government groups are investigating.

The ministry "firmly opposes" such gene-editing and has "already demanded that the relevant organisation suspend the scientific activities of relevant personnel", Xu said. The leader of the conference called the experiment "irresponsible" and evidence that the scientific community had failed to regulate itself to prevent premature efforts to alter DNA.

But experts worry meddling with the genome of an embryo could cause harm not only to the individual but also future generations that inherit these same changes. It's banned in some countries, including the United States, except for lab research.

He reportedly told participating couples that the worse-case scenario could be that the "gene scalpel" (CRISPR-Cas9 technique) missed its target: the CCR5 protein might not link with the main human HIV receptor, and hence the babies would not be immune to the virus.

Co-creator of the technology Jennifer Doudna said she felt "horrified" at hearing He's talk, adding she was deeply concerned for the people affected and questioned whether they really understood the procedure.

"Three scientists were disciplined, they were dismissed from their positions, and they could not apply for grants over a certain period of time, so [He's case] may be similar to this", Qiu told Al Jazeera.

"This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit". "I hope it never happens again".

There is no independent confirmation of what He says he did. The couples had participated voluntarily in the study.

Several groups have already expressed their criticism and opinion about the issue, including the conference where He claimed to have edited the genes of twins. "I don't think the police will be involved, but the ministries will discipline him".

"The events in Hong Kong this week clearly demonstrate the need for us to develop more specific standards and principles that can be agreed upon by the worldwide scientific community", NAS president Marcia McNutt and NAM president Victor Dzau said in a statement. CCR5 was not a high-priority gene to edit, he says, because there are other ways to effectively prevent and treat HIV.

Beijing simultaneously warned that He's gene-editing activities may have broken the law and ordered an investigation.

"I think there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of the lack of transparency", Baltimore said.

Charo said He's work was premature and her biggest fear was that it would make it more hard for scientists to proceed in a responsible manner, as the government and advocacy groups might call for legal actions against any attempt even if the science had already developed.

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