November 29, 2018 / 4:41 AM / 18 days ago

Breakingviews - China's gene-edited babies cry out to regulators

Scientist He Jiankui attends the International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, China November 28, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - China’s genetically-edited embryos are crying out to regulators. Shocking claims by a scientist who says he altered the genes of twin girls born in November have sparked a firestorm. Clearer guidelines are needed.

He Jiankui, a Stanford-trained researcher, stunned the world when he claimed that he had successfully edited babies’ genomes in attempt to make them resistant to HIV. He says he used cutting-edge technology, known as CRISPR-Cas9, on human embryos and defended his experiments at a conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday, adding that the twins were born healthy. He then dropped another bombshell: there could be a second, gene-edited pregnancy underway.

Many of He’s peers have denounced the experiment as dangerous and unethical: “Pandora’s box has been opened,” read an open letter signed by 100 scientists. Tinkering with “germ cells” inside embryos, sperm and eggs risks unintended side-effects, and changes to DNA can be passed down to future generations. There are questions as to whether He’s volunteers understood the risks, plus the debate surrounding the ethics of building genetically-enhanced “designer” children. The latter is especially pertinent in a society still struggling to discourage sex-selective abortion.

Authorities are investigating, but the government’s biotech innovation push may have sent mixed signals. A Wall Street Journal investigation earlier this year found that the country has been rushing ahead with using CRISPR technology on cancer and HIV patients with few hurdles – a risky route to competitive advantage. Indeed an article in the official People’s Daily published Monday lauded He’s breakthrough before being taken down.

Assuming the results are genuine, it’s unclear whether he actually broke Chinese law. The Ministry of Health has guidelines banning in-vitro clinics from using gene-editing for reproductive purposes, yet He told the Associated Press there is no law specifically forbidding gene-editing human embryos that result in live births.

Beijing is hardly the only government grappling with how to regulate bleeding-edge technologies like CRISPR without stifling medical breakthroughs. China’s scientific community, including hospital and university review boards, are best positioned to restrain ill-considered research projects, but unfortunately the country has a poor track record of self-regulation. Widespread research fraud and plagiarism add to the headache. Oversight, internal and external, is overdue.  

Breakingviews

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