Gene-edited baby claim by Chinese scientist sparks outrage

Scientists and bioethics experts reacted with shock, anger and alarm Monday to a Chinese researcher’s claim that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies. (AFP)
Updated 26 November 2018
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Gene-edited baby claim by Chinese scientist sparks outrage

  • More than 100 scientists signed a petition calling for greater oversight on gene editing experiments
  • He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China said he altered the DNA of twin girls

HONG KONG: Scientists and bioethics experts reacted with shock, anger and alarm Monday to a Chinese researcher’s claim that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies.
He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China said he altered the DNA of twin girls born earlier this month to try to help them resist possible future infection with the AIDS virus — a dubious goal, ethically and scientifically.
There is no independent confirmation of what He says he did, and it has not been published in a journal where other experts could review it. He revealed it Monday in Hong Kong where a gene editing conference is getting underway, and previously in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.
Reaction to the claim was swift and harsh.
More than 100 scientists signed a petition calling for greater oversight on gene editing experiments.
The university where He is based said it will hire experts to investigate, saying the work “seriously violated academic ethics and standards.”
A spokesman for He said he has been on leave from teaching since early this year but remains on the faculty and has a lab at the university.
Authorities in Shenzhen, the city where He’s lab is situated, also launched an investigation.
And Rice University in the United States said it will investigate the involvement of physics professor Michael Deem. This sort of gene editing is banned in the US, though Deem said he worked with He on the project in China.
“Regardless of where it was conducted, this work as described in press reports violates scientific conduct guidelines and is inconsistent with ethical norms of the scientific community and Rice University,” the school said in a statement.
Gene editing is a way to rewrite DNA, the code of life, to try to supply a missing gene that is needed or disable one that is causing problems. It has only recently been tried in adults to treat serious diseases.
Editing eggs, sperm or embryos is different, because it makes permanent changes that can pass to future generations. Its risks are unknown, and leading scientists have called for a moratorium on its use except in lab studies until more is learned.
They include Feng Zhang and Jennifer Doudna, inventors of a powerful but simple new tool called CRISPR-cas9 that reportedly was used on the Chinese babies during fertility treatments when they were conceived.
“Not only do I see this as risky, but I am also deeply concerned about the lack of transparency” around the work, Zhang, a scientist at MIT’s Broad Institute, said in a statement. Medical advances need to be openly discussed with patients, doctors, scientists and society, he wrote.
Doudna, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the Hong Kong conference organizers, said that He met with her Monday to tell her of his work, and that she and others plan to let him speak at the conference Wednesday as originally planned.
“None of the reported work has gone through the peer review process,” and the conference is aimed at hashing out important issues such as whether and when gene editing is appropriate, she said.
Another conference leader, Harvard Medical School dean Dr. George Daley, said he worries about other scientists trying this in the absence of regulations or a ban.
“I would be concerned if this initial report opened the floodgates to broader practice,” Daley said.
Notre Dame Law School professor O. Carter Snead, a former presidential adviser on bioethics, called the report “deeply troubling, if true.”
“No matter how well intentioned, this intervention is dangerous, unethical, and represents a perilous new moment in human history,” he wrote in an email. “These children, and their children’s children, have had their futures irrevocably changed without consent, ethical review or meaningful deliberation.”
Concerns have been raised about how He says he proceeded, and whether participants truly understood the potential risks and benefits before signing up to attempt pregnancy with edited embryos. He says he began the work in 2017, but he only gave notice of it earlier this month on a Chinese registry of clinical trials.
The secrecy concerns have been compounded by lack of proof for his claims. He has said the parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and he would not say where they live or where the work was done.
One independent expert even questioned whether the claim could be a hoax. Deem, the Rice scientist who says he took part in the work, called that ridiculous.
“Of course the work occurred,” Deem said. “I met the parents. I was there for the informed consent of the parents.”


Australia says foreign government behind cyberattack on lawmakers

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (AFP)
Updated 18 February 2019
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Australia says foreign government behind cyberattack on lawmakers

  • Morrison did not name any suspects, but analysts have said China, Russia and Iran were the most likely culprits

SYDNEY: A cyberattack on Australian lawmakers that breached the networks of major political parties was probably carried out by a foreign country, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, without naming any suspects.
As Australia heads for an election due by May, lawmakers were told this month told to urgently change their passwords after the cyber intelligence agency detected an attack on the national parliament’s computer network.
The hackers breached the networks of Australia’s major political parties, Morrison said, as he issued an initial assessment by investigators.
“Our cyber experts believe that a sophisticated state actor is responsible for this malicious activity,” he told parliament.
“We also became aware that the networks of some political parties, Liberal, Labor and Nationals have also been affected.”
Morrison did not reveal what information was accessed, but he said there was no evidence of election interference.
Australians will return to the polls by May.
Morrison did not name any suspects, but analysts have said China, Russia and Iran were the most likely culprits.
“When you consider motivation, you would have to say that China is the leading suspect, while you wouldn’t rule out Russia either,” said Fergus Hanson, head of the International Cyber Policy Center at think-tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“It is the honey-pot of juicy political gossip that has been hoovered up. Emails showing everything from the dirty laundry of internal fights through to who supported a policy could be on display.”
Ties with China have deteriorated since 2017, after Canberra accused Beijing of meddling in its domestic affairs. Both countries have since sought to mend relations, but Australia remains wary of China.
Tension rose this month after Australia rescinded the visa of a prominent Chinese businessman, just months after barring Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies from supplying equipment to its 5G broadband network.
Officers of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency covertly monitored computers of US Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and campaign committees, and stole large amounts of data, US investigators have concluded.