(AP) – At the beginning of last year, a lesser-known Chinese researcher turned up at an elite meeting in Berkeley, California, where scientists and ethicists discussed a technology that had rocked the field to the core – an emerging tool to "edit" genes, the DNA strands that make up the life plan.
The young scientist, He Jiankui, recognized the power of this tool, called CRISPR, to transform not only genes but also his genes own career.
While visiting the United States, he sought out CRISPR pioneers such as Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Matthew Porteus of Stanford University and great thinkers about his dedication, such as the Stanford Ethic Dr. William Hurlbut. Last week, these shocked researchers watched him hijack an international conference with a staggering assertion: He said he had helped make the world's first genetically engineered babies, despite clear scientific consensus on genetic modification should be passed on to future generations should not be attempted at this point.
US. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, described He's experiment as "a misfortune of a great sort" ̵
But nobody stops him How can that be?
To be fair, scientists say, there is no sure way to prevent someone from engaging in DNA, no matter what laws or standards exist. CRISPR is cheap and easy to use – so scientists almost began to fear when technology was invented to make it happen.
There is a long history in science and medicine of researchers who start experiments prematurely with contempt or Some of them have led to common practice today, such as in vitro fertilization.
In the US and most European countries, gene editing for reproduction purposes is virtually banned, and in China, ministerial guidelines prohibit the study of embryos that are "against ethical or moral principles. "
It turned out that he was not quite close to his goals He was looking for international experts at the Stanford and Rice colleges where he completed his theses, and sought advice before and during the experiment.
Should scientists who knew of his plans speak up? Could they have stopped him?
The answers are not clear.
"It does not fall into the category of legal responsibility, but ethical responsibility," said Collins. He said it was not like a scientist taking responsibility.
China's National Health Commission, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and its own university said they were in the dark and sentenced him ever since.
But three Stanford scientists – Hurlbut, Porteus, and his former scholarship adviser, Stephen Quake – had much contact with him in recent years. She and other scientists knew or suspected strongly that he intended to make genetically modified babies.
Some confidants did not believe that he would go through it; others expressed concerns that were never considered.
Stanford did not respond to an interview request.
Quake, a professor of biotechnology, was one of the first to hear about Hes Ambition. Quake said he had met He over the years that his former student was in town, and that a few years ago he entrusted his interest in working with live birth embryos to make them resistant to the AIDS virus close.
Quake said He gave only general advice and encouraged him to speak with established scientists, to choose situations in which there is agreement that the risks are justified, to meet the highest ethical standards, and to have his findings evaluated by peer-reviewed experts To publish journal.
"My advice was very broad," said Quake.
Hurlbut believes he met He in early 2017 when he and Doudna, co-inventors of CRISPR, held the first of three meetings with leading scientists and ethicists to discuss the technology. 19659004] "Somehow he ended up at our meeting," said Hurlbut.
Since then, he has returned to Stanford several times and Hurlbut said he spent "many hours" talking to him about situations in which the editing of genes might be appropriate.
Four or five us eks told Hurlbut he came to see him again and discussed the processing of embryo genes to try to prevent HIV. Hurlbut said he suspected he was trying to implant a modified embryo in the abdomen of a woman.
"I admonished him," he said. "I did not do his job green, I challenged him to do it, I did not approve of what he did."
Porteus said that he knew he had talked to Hurlbut and suspected Hurlbut was discouraging the Chinese scientist. In February, he asked for a meeting with Porteus and told him that he had been given permission by a hospital ethics committee to move forward.
"I think he expected me to be more open-minded, and I was very negative," Porteus said. "I was angry at his naivety, I was angry at his recklessness."
Porteus said he urged him to "talk to your older Chinese counterparts."
After this meeting, "I did not hear from him and assumed that he would not continue," Porteus said. "In retrospect, I could have triggered a tone and a scream."
In a draft article on the genetically-motivated twin girls he wanted to submit to journals, he thanked UC Berkeley biophysicist Mark DeWitt for editing the manuscript. DeWitt said he had tried to dissuade He and denied that he was editing the newspaper, saying he had seen the newspaper, but the feedback he offered was "quite general."
He claims that his work led to a second pregnancy, could not be confirmed independently and his work was not published, and defended his actions last week at a gene editing summit in Hong Kong.
In contrast, another US American scientist that he not only encouraged but also played a major role in the project.
Michael Deem, professor of biotechnology at Rice Er and the university's doctoral adviser, said he had worked with He since the reorganization He returned to China in 2012. He was a member of the advisory board and had "a small stake" in He's two gene companies in Shenzhen, Deem defended his han and said that the research team had previously conducted animal experiments.
"We have several generations of animals that have been genetically engineered to yield viable progeny" and a lot of research into inadvertent effects on other genes, Deem said. Deem also said that he was present in China when some study participants gave their consent to embryo gene processing.
Rice said he has no knowledge of Deem's involvement and is now being investigated.
So far, attention has focused on the issue of regulatory gaps in China.
But that's not the whole story, said Rosario Isasi, an expert on genomics in the US and China at the University of Miami.
"We want to focus on how it happened and why it happened, and how it happened," said Isasi. "How can we create a system that offers better transparency?"
There is no international regulatory authority that enforces the rules of bioethics, but scientific institutions and universities may use other instruments.
"If anyone violates these rules, scientists may refuse to publish magazines, employers may refuse to work, and lenders may refuse to fund them," said Hank Greely, professor of law and genetics at Stanford.
Greely expects that his experiment will have an impact on the Academy, regardless of whether the regulators have influence or not. "The universities will take a closer look at what's happening, and this incident will alert all emerging research."
Of course, bad beginnings sometimes get better results.
California, Los Angeles, Professor Martin Cline was sanctioned because of the first gene therapy to two women in Israel and Italy because he had not been approved for the attempt at UCLA.
Cline cited his work instead of publishing it in a scientific journal article and was exposed to criticism because he had tried "genetic engineering" on humans when his safety and efficacy in animals had not been established. Now, gene therapy is an established, if still quite new treatment method.
Two years earlier, in 1978, Dr. Ing. Robert Edwards similarly denounced when he announced with the press the world's first "test tube baby," Louise Brown. Later, the work received a Nobel Prize, and the IFV helped millions to a child.
This year, Louise Brown – mother of two sons received in an old-fashioned way – turned 40 years old.
___  Larson reported from Washington, DC
This series of Associated Press was produced in collaboration with the Department of Scientific Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The content is the sole responsibility of the AP.