Disgraced CRISPR-baby scientist says editing of human embryos should be banned

Disgraced CRISPR-baby scientist says editing of human embryos should be banned

Biophysicist He Jiankui, who was released from prison last year, refused to answer questions about his genome-editing experiments.Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP/Shutterstock

He Jiankui, the Chinese biophysicist who shocked the world by creating the first children with edited genomes, says the kind of controversial experiments he conducted more than four years ago should be banned, but otherwise refuses to talk about the work that landed him in jail. for three years. His silence frustrates some scientists, who say he must answer questions about his past research before revealing his latest plans to use genome-editing technology in humans.

He spoke on Saturday at a virtual and in-person bioethics event promoted as “the first time Dr. He has agreed to interact with Chinese bioethicists and other CRISPR scientists in a public event”. But during the talk He did not discuss his previous work and refused to answer questions from the audience, but instead replied that questions should be sent to him by e-mail.

“This meeting was very disappointing, especially the failure of He Jiankui to answer any questions,” said Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, who attended the event.

“A publicity stunt like today shows that he doesn’t have much credibility, at least in the eyes of his peers,” said Eben Kirksey, a medical anthropologist at the University of Oxford, UK.

He tweeted hours before the event that he was not comfortable discussing his previous work. “I feel that I am not ready to talk about my experience in the last 3 years,” he tweeted. He also said he would no longer attend Oxford University in March for a series of interviews with Kirksey, and said he would not attend an international genome editing summit at the Francis Crick Institute, where researchers will discuss the ethics of germline editing. booked , also planned for March.

Kirksey did not want to comment on the status of the Oxford interviews, but says he needs to clarify details about the circumstances surrounding his previous experiments. In 2018, the world learned that He used CRISPR–Cas9 to edit a gene known as CCR5, which encodes an HIV co-receptor, with the aim of making the children resistant to the virus. He implanted the embryos, which resulted in twins and another baby born to separated parents. The parents agreed to the treatment because the fathers were HIV-positive and the mothers were HIV-negative.

His experiments were widely condemned by scientists, and several scientific groups have since concluded that genome editing should not be used to make changes that can be passed on to future generations.

It is not known whether Hy’s previous work was successful or left the children free of side effects. Without proof of that, Kirksey remains skeptical about Hy’s future scientific plans.

Since being released from prison last year for violating medical regulations in China, he has revealed on social media that he has set up a non-profit research laboratory in Beijing focused on developing affordable therapies for hereditary diseases such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) ).

His research plans

The weekend event was organized by the BioGovernance Commons initiative, monthly online meetings on ethical and regulatory issues between academics in China and those across Europe, North America and Asia, and hosted by the University of Kent. More than 80 researchers from 13 countries attended in person, and he was with about 20 academics and students at a venue in Wuhan.

Delivering a 25-minute presentation in Chinese with simultaneous English translation, he briefly described his plans to develop a gene-editing tool for people living with DMD, for which he is currently raising funding from philanthropic organizations. He said he would not accept investment from commercial entities to ensure the therapies they develop are affordable, and that an international ethics committee would provide guidance on the work.

He also said that “hereditary embryo gene editing should not be allowed in human clinical practice, whether in China or other countries.” Although genome editing on embryos intended for implantation has been banned in China, he said the implementation of regulations on gene editing technologies still lacks clarity. “Scientific research must be subject to constraints of ethics and morality,” he said at the end of his presentation. But He spent most of his talk describing the basics of genome editing technology and its application in agriculture, infectious diseases, diagnostics and human health.

Researchers who attended the talk were disappointed. “It bordered on insulting the conference organizers and the participants to use up the time with details and information that were not relevant,” says Françoise Baylis, a bioethicist and professor emerita at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. , Canada. Baylis said he gave little information about his past and current research efforts.

Anna Lisa Ahlers, a social scientist and China studies student at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, praised him for agreeing to speak to the group, but said his presentation fell short of scientists’ expectations . “From his talk I would have gotten the impression that he was a salesman.”

His presentation and failure to engage with scientists at the event show that he has not considered the social and ethical implications of his research, suggesting that he is not ready to work on genome editing, says Joy Zhang , a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, and one of the event organizers. “We don’t want another scandal where desperate patients will be exploited for ventures on experimental or even illegal therapies,” says Zhang.

He asked nature to comment on criticism of his talk from scientists. He responded by sharing a link to his earlier tweet.

Too much publicity?

Some researchers worry that interest in He Jiankui is distracting from more important ethical issues surrounding heritable genome editing. “This event puts the spotlight on He Jiankui – Will he apologize? Does he show remorse?,” said Marcy Darnovsky, a public interest advocate on the social implications of human biotechnology at the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, California. Instead, she thinks researchers should focus on discussing whether there is a medical justification for hereditary genome editing.

After Hy’s announcement in 2018, the US National Academy of Medicine, the US National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society concluded in a 2020 report that gene editing technology was not ready for use in human embryos destined to to be implanted. And in July 2021, a committee convened by the World Health Organization advised against the use of hereditary gene editing. About 70 countries prohibit heritable genome editing, according to a 2020 policy review1.

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