In Hong Kong, Caltech President Emeritus Leads Opposition to Human Gene-Editing by Chinese Scientist

Published : Thursday, November 29, 2018 | 5:08 PM

David Baltimore. Image by Bob Paz courtesy Caltech

A California Institute of Technology professor who’s now President Emeritus of the Pasadena-based institute is leading the opposition to human embryo DNA editing, after a Chinese scientist claimed this week he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies – twin girls who were born last month.

Dr. David Baltimore, a Nobel-prize winning biologist who served as Caltech president from 1997 to 2006, said the Chinese scientist’s claims have to be investigated as they could be in “violation of international scientific norms.”

Baltimore was the chairman of the organizing committee of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong that opened Tuesday, November 27, and was to end Thursday. The summit was organized by the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine.

On Tuesday night, He JianKui, of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, said he had modified the embryos of the twins with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, to make them immune to the AIDS virus. His claims have not been independently verified.

Scientists attending the conference were jolted by his announcement. Immediately after his 15-minute presentation, Baltimore stood up and said scientists are in agreement that it would be irresponsible to try to create genetically modified babies until there was much more research to make sure it was necessary and safe, and until a consensus had been reached that it was prudent, a report by NPR said.

“I don’t think it has been a transparent process,” Baltimore said. “We’ve only found out about it after it’s happened and the children are born. I personally don’t think it was medically necessary.”

On Thursday, a statement by the summit’s organizing committee, which Baltimore chairs, said they are recommending an independent assessment to verify his claim and to ascertain whether the claimed DNA modifications have occurred.

“At this summit we heard an unexpected and deeply disturbing claim that human embryos had been edited and implanted, resulting in a pregnancy and the birth of twins,” the statement said. “Even if the modifications are verified, the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform with international norms. Its flaws include an inadequate medical indication, a poorly designed study protocol, a failure to meet ethical standards for protecting the welfare of research subjects, and a lack of transparency in the development, review, and conduct of the clinical procedures.”

His revelation at the summit has led a group of 122 Chinese scientists to issue a statement saying his actions were “crazy” and his claims” were a “huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.” A Chinese medical ethics board is now investigating whether He’s experiment were in violation of Chinese laws and regulations.

The organizing committee’s statement stopped short of giving in to calls for a moratorium on gene-editing research, saying such work could possibly lead to new measures to prevent serious genetic diseases.

“Making changes in the DNA of embryos could allow parents carrying disease-causing mutation have healthy genetically related children,” Baltimore said.

Baltimore is currently the President Emeritus and Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology at Caltech’s Division of Biology and Biological Engineering.

He also served as president of Rockefeller University from 1990 to 1991, and was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2007.

Baltimore has profoundly influenced international science, including key contributions to immunology, virology, cancer research, biotechnology, and recombinant DNA research. He has trained many doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, several of whom have gone on to notable and distinguished research careers.

In addition to the Nobel Prize in 1975, Baltimore has received a number of awards, including the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1999. Baltimore currently sits on the Board of Sponsors for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and is a consultant to the Science Philanthropy Alliance.



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