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article imageCo-creator of gene editing speaks out on CRISPR embryo research

By Tim Sandle     Nov 27, 2018 in Science
Professor He Jiankui claims to have genetically edited human babies, an announcement that led to widespread dismay from scientists. Now, the co-creator of the CRISPR method used in the reported genetic editing, Jennifer Doudna, is voicing her opinion.
Via a video posted online, Professor He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, explains how he has performed an experiment to alter embryos for seven couples during fertility treatment. As reported on Digital Journal, this genetic experimentation has led to the birth of twins earlier this month. He's justification is that he was searching for ways to give the selected babies a natural ability to resist the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
Although genome editing has the potential to cure diseases by disrupting endogenous disease-causing genes, the declaration has led to widespread concern from scientists, based on such experimentation not being not morally or ethically defensible. The news has also led to the researcher's suspension from his university; these are both responses to the breaking of a global scientific consensus not to use CRISPR on human embryos.
CRISPR -  revolutionary new tool to cut and splice DNA.
CRISPR - revolutionary new tool to cut and splice DNA.
Illustration courtesy of Jennifer Doudna/UC Berkeley
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR (Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats), as Digital Journal has reported (see: "Is CRISPR technology set to change biological science?”), is a type of biological cut-and-paste method which enables researchers detect a gene defect within living cells and then use molecular “scissors” to make changes. Changes include deleting the gene; repairing it; or replacing it.
In response to the news of He's work, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, who works at UC Berkeley and who is, importantly, the co-inventor of CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology, said the scientists who undertook the work in China clearly outline the basis for their research. She states: "It is imperative that the scientists responsible for this work fully explain their break from the global consensus that application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing should not proceed at the present time."
Dr. Doudna also adds that since the data have not been peer reviewed "the fidelity of the gene editing process cannot be evaluated", which partly stymies the response from the global scientific community. She also emphasizes the need for caution when gene editing is being considered for human embryos, arguing that any considerations should be extremely limited to "cases where a clear unmet medical need exists, and where no other medical approach is a viable option."
As well as adding her voice to the criticisms made by other scientists, Dr. Doudna also agrees with those who are expressing doubt as to whether the experiments took place at all (or whether they were successful). This is due to the lack of scientific evidence, which is customarily found via the publishing of a peer-reviewed paper.
The scientists expressing concern include over 120 Chinese scientists, who have condemned the apparent study as “madness”. According to The Guardian the scientists have called on authorities to enact laws on this kind of research.
More about Crispr, Human embryo, embryo research, Genetics
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