Research

Evil genius: the Nobel laureate knew about the experiment with GMO twins, but ... did not say anything

The Associated Press reports that the laureateNobel Prize and biologist Craig Mello knew about pregnancy in China with the participation of children with edited genes a few months before the news became public. The fact that an eminent scientist knew about this extremely unethical work, but chose to remain silent, is a serious cause for concern and a sign that the culture around questionable research must change.

CRISPR, Nobel Laureates and Designer Twins

Mello worked in the Scientific Advisory BoardDirect Genomics, a company belonging to the genetics He Jiankyi, who led all this controversial and possibly criminal work on editing genes. In April 2018, he wrote Mello and talked about pregnancy. Mello responded, condemning this job, but remained a scientific adviser to Xe, a company that did not participate in the experiment, for the next eight months, and resigned only after news of genetically modified twins became public knowledge. Mello declined to comment.

During the genome editing conferencea man in Hong Kong in November of this year, He admitted that he modified the DNA of embryos using the CRISPR gene editing tool, and then implanted them into the mother's womb. Twin girls were born in early November with obvious immunity to HIV / AIDS, which was the result of the deletion of the CCR5 gene. He also reported on a second pregnancy at the conference. His study, although not confirmed, was sharply criticized due to the current raw state of the technology of editing genes, because the study was not deemed necessary from a medical point of view, and also because the long-term effects of the modification are unknown, among other concerns.

Currently, most countries, includingChina and the United States, allow scientists to modify the DNA of human embryos, but to cause pregnancy with modified embryos is strictly prohibited. A recent investigation by the Chinese authorities revealed that Xe, in addition to violating this prohibition, violated the law, pursuing “personal fame and profit”, forging ethical certificates and falsifying laboratory work. According to Chinese state media, he was detained by the security forces and “strict measures will be taken against him”.

Associated Press Received Email CorrespondenceMello and Heh. As the correspondence shows, Mello, who received the Nobel Prize in 2006 for research in the field of genetics, was critical of Xe's work. In April 2018, He wrote Mello:

"Dear Craig,

Good news! The woman (sic) is pregnant, the genome has been successfully edited. An embryo with the edited CCR5 gene was transplanted by a woman 12 days ago, and today the pregnancy was confirmed! ”.

To which Mello replied:

"I'm happy for you, but I would not dwell onthis I think that all this is not truly a medical need that needs to be met, and therefore I do not support the use of CRISPR for this. You are risking the health of the child you are editing, and as far as I know, there is no significant risk of HIV / AIDS transmission to the embryo in the IVF process. In fact, this treatment itself feeds the fear of HIV and stigma that is not based on any medical facts. I just do not understand why you are doing this.

I wish your patient good luck and a healthy pregnancy. ”

Despite the attitude, Mello stayed with DirectGenomics and talked about the secret research Xe. Mello declined to comment, but his university, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, provided a statement in which Mello said that his conversations with Xe were “hypothetical and broad,” and that he did not know that Xe was capable of editing the human genome. Allegedly, Mello had no idea that He was going to try to do it himself.

Obviously, this episode is no good and heemphasizes the duty of scientists to speak out when evidence of unethical work appears. Even a simple tweet could alert the whole world, given the prominent position of Mello in the scientific community. However, there are more formal and rigorous channels for reporting violations.

“When you hear of something like this, you mustreport unethical behavior, ”says Arthur Kaplan, bioethics at New York University School of Medicine. “At a minimum, you should go to the home institution of a researcher, find a dean or immediate supervisor and express your concerns. Ask them if they know about this study and have approved it. ”

Kerry Bowman, Bioethics from the University of Toronto,He says that Mello’s actions show how problematic a moratorium on editing genes in embryos can be when even distinguished scientists don’t want to take action against such a reckless act and a clear ethical violation.

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