China reportedly halts research on gene-edited babies

Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaks at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong

Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaks at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong

The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, taking place this week in Hong Kong, was supposed to be a gathering of researchers and medical professionals for the objective of furthering the scientific and ethical standards of genetic modification. Instead they stress the importance of employing a rigorous ethical framework to any research done on editing human life.

A Chinese scientist who stoked criticism over his claim that he had created the world's first genetically-edited babies faced mounting pressure Thursday as China ordered a halt to his scientific activities and warned he may have broken the law.

The country's vice minister of science and technology, Xu Nanping, told state media outlet CCTV that the government was opposed to what He had done and said an investigation would soon be underway.

"At this summit we heard an unexpected and deeply disturbing claim that human embryos had been edited and implanted, resulting in a pregnancy and the birth of twins", said the summit's organizing committee, which called for independent verification of He's claims that have so far not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. But enough scientific advances have been made since the last summit in 2015 to begin plotting a course for how that could happen some day, according to the statement. But in the meantime, the panel called for a halt.

The Stanford-educated researcher said the twins' DNA was modified using CRISPR, a technique which allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision.

In the future, such technology could be used to eradicate inherited illnesses, but it could also pave the way for "designer babies" engineered to have certain traits like hair colour or intelligence.

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But until this week, such debates were largely theoretical, because no one was known to have established a pregnancy from a genetically-edited human embryo.

As you might imagine, this isn't what the organizers of the summit had in mind.

"The need for development of binding worldwide consensus on setting limits for this kind of research. has never been more apparent". "Should such epic scientific misadventures proceed, a technology with enormous promise for prevention and treatment of disease will be overshadowed by justifiable public outrage, fear, and disgust".

After word first leaked of He's project through news reports, scientists criticized the effort as irresponsible and premature. The Southern University of Science and Technology, the university in the southern Chinese city in Shenzhen that employs him, says he has been on unpaid leave since February. The scientist had told a packed biomedical conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday he was "proud" to have successfully altered the DNA of the twins.

The summit, which unexpectedly attracted global attention outside academic circles thanks to He's study, concluded Thursday.

The twin girls, identified by the aliases Lulu and Nana to hide their identities, were said to have been born a few weeks ago in a hospital in Shenzhen, southern China. It said his procedures had a number of flaws, ranging from a poorly-designed study protocol for ensuring transparency to a failure to meet ethical standards to protect the welfare of research subjects.

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