US Health Chief: Embryo Gene Editing 'Great Shock'

The Associated Press
Created: December 03, 2018 04:48 PM

Early last year, a little-known Chinese researcher turned up at an elite meeting in Berkeley, California, where scientists and ethicists were discussing a technology that had shaken the field to its core — an emerging tool for "editing" genes, the strings of DNA that form the blueprint of life.

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The young scientist, He Jiankui, saw the power of this tool, called CRISPR, to transform not only genes, but also his own career.

He now says he helped make the world's first gene-edited babies, despite clear scientific consensus that making genetic changes that could be passed to future generations should not be attempted at this point.

U.S. National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins called He's actions "outrages."

Collins has done ground-breaking work on gene research as well, and said how He is doing his research "crosses the boundaries of ethical limits that virtually everybody has agreed to."

Some have defended He's work, saying there's no certain way to stop someone intent on monkeying with DNA, no matter what laws or standards are in place.

"We all worried that at some point there might come a time where somebody would take it upon themselves to apply this same technology to an embryo and then try to create a baby from that. But I did not expect it to happen at this point," said Collins.

Collins acknowledged there is a long history in science and medicine of researchers launching experiments prematurely that were met with scorn or horror — some of which led to what are now common practices, such as in-vitro fertilization.

Collins said that while science tends to reward the bold, he believes He will not be remembered as a pioneer.

"This will not be looked at in 20 years as a major advance. It will be looked at as a shining example of how a rogue scientist was capable to hide what he was doing, cross boundaries and actually cast very negative light on the scientific community's ability to manage their own affairs," said Collins.  

Collins also said what He did would most certainly be illegal in the United States.


The Associated Press

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