Metro

Local researcher calls for halt to genetically edited embryos

Feng Zhang.
Susan Walsh/Associated Press
Feng Zhang.

An official at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is calling for a halt to the “implantation of edited embryos,” following a Chinese researcher’s claim that he helped make the world’s first genetically-edited babies using DNA he tweaked, in an effort to inoculate people from HIV.

“Although I appreciate the global threat posed by HIV, at this stage, the risks of editing embryos to knock out CCR5 seem to outweigh the potential benefits, not to mention that knocking out of CCR5 will likely render a person much more susceptible for West Nile Virus,” said Feng Zhang, a Broad core institute member, in a statement. “Just as important, there are already common and highly-effective methods to prevent transmission of HIV from a parent to an unborn child.”

Zhang was responding to bombshell claims by He Jiankui of Shenzhen, who said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.

Advertisement

There’s no independent confirmation of He’s claim.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“Given the current early state of genome editing technology, I’m in favor of a moratorium on implantation of edited embryos, which seems to be the intention of the CCR5 trial, until we have come up with a thoughtful set of safety requirements first,” Zhang said in Monday’s statement.

He said he’s “deeply concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding this trial. All medical advances, gene editing or otherwise and particularly those that impact vulnerable populations, should be cautiously and thoughtfully tested, discussed openly with patients, physicians, scientists, and other community members, and implemented in an equitable way.”

In addition, Zhang said that in 2015, “the international research community said it would be irresponsible to proceed with any germline editing without ‘broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application.’ (This was the consensus statement from the 2015 International Summit on Human Gene Editing.) It is my hope that this year’s summit will serve as a forum for deeper conversations about the implications of this news and provide guidance on how we as a global society can best benefit from gene editing.”

George J. Annas, director of the Center for Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights at Boston University, was also critical of He’s announcement.

Advertisement

In an e-mail, Annas voiced skepticism of He’s claim but said there are a number of ethical concerns if the researcher is, in fact, telling the truth.

If He’s claims are accurate, Annas wrote, then the academic violated “a growing medical-scientific consensus that gene editing not be used on human embryos to create a baby until much more is known about its safety (especially ‘off target’ effects), how to obtain informed consent, and how to monitor any resulting children (and their children) for at least 3 generations (indeed, the Hong Kong conference is the second international one on the science and ethics of Human Genome Editing, designed especially to create an international consensus).”

In addition, Annas wrote, He focused on “a disease (susceptibility to HIV infection) that virtually no one thinks should be ‘cured’ by gene editing (since it is both preventable and treatable by current practices).”

Annas also faulted He for conducting his research on “twins instead of one baby” and said scientists should “never endanger two children with a first of its kind experiment—but should do one and not add others until safety (and efficacy) are confirmed in the first.”

And, Annas wrote, He announced “his experiment to the press rather than in a peer-reviewed journal, violating basic medical and scientific ethics (and also making it less likely that his experiment actually was done as announced).” Annas also asserted that He is “unqualified as a physicist to deal with patients, touch them, or get consent from them for a medical procedure (we don’t know about the physicians involved, but on the surface, they seem to have acted unethically as well).”

Advertisement

But not all local researchers are opposed to his potentially groundbreaking work.

One leading geneticist, Harvard University’s George Church, defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called ‘‘a major and growing public health threat.’’

‘‘I think this is justifiable,’’ Church told the AP.

Separately on Monday, the Southern University of Science and Technology, the Hong Kong school that He Jiankui’s affiliated with, confirmed in a statement that the researcher is on “no-paid leave” through January 2021.

And, the statement said, the university was blindsided by He’s announcement.

“The University was deeply shocked by this event and has taken immediate action to reach [He] for clarification,” the release said, adding that He’s “previous affiliation, the Department of Biology (hereafter the Department) called an emergency meeting of the Department Academic Committee.”

The university added that He’s research utilizing altered DNA was “conducted outside of the campus and was not reported to the University nor the Department. The University and the Department were unaware of the research project and its nature.”

The school said its “SUSTech Department of Biology Academic Committee believes that [He’s] conduct in utilizing CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct. All research conducted at SUSTech is required to abide by laws and regulations, and comply with international academic ethics and codes of conduct. The University will call for international experts to form an independent committee to investigate this incident, and to release the results to the public.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.