China halts scientist's controversial baby gene-editing project

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The Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world's first genetically-edited babies defended the highly controversial procedure Wednesday, but announced a halt to the trial following an global outcry.

Joyce Harper, professor in genetics and human embryology at University College London (UCL) said, "Today's report of genome editing human embryos for resistance to HIV is premature, risky and irresponsible".

The work is highly controversial because the changes can be inherited and could go on to harm other genes, and is banned in many countries.

The move - which would be a medical first if true - prompted a heated debate among the scientific community, with many raising concerns over the lack of verified data and exposing healthy embryos and children to gene editing.

Scientists can do gene editing research on discarded IVF embryos, as long as they are destroyed immediately afterwards and not used to make a baby.

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

As CNN reports, He's associate, Michael Deem of Rice University, is now also under investigation due to his claimed role in the work. When asked whether their genotype might affect their upbringing, he said, "I don't have to answer this question".

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Nobel prize-winning geneticist David Baltimore, who is taking part in the conference, described He's work as a failure of self-regulation among scientists.

"The nature of this incident is extremely bad, which has seriously damaged the image and interests of the Chinese scientific and technological community", said Huai Jinpen, party secretary of the China Association for Science and Technology. He also said that the parents were informed of the potential risks of the off-target edit.

The research "crossed the line of morality and ethics adhered to by the academic community and was shocking and unacceptable", Xu said. "I feel proudest, because they had lost hope for life", He said, when challenged by several peers at the conference (live stream below).

Chinese Vice Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping told state broadcaster CCTV that his ministry is strongly opposed to the efforts that reportedly produced twin girls born earlier this month.

But scientists and the Chinese government have denounced the work and a hospital linked to He's research suggested its ethical approval was forged. He said he recruited the couples from an "HIV AIDS volunteer group".

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.

Dr Daley said that just because the first case may have been a mis-step, this "should in no way, I think, lead us to stick our heads in the sand and not consider the very, very positive aspects that could come forth by a more responsible pathway".

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