Home / Health / The Nobel prize-winning biologist had known about genetically-treated babies for months, but kept quiet

The Nobel prize-winning biologist had known about genetically-treated babies for months, but kept quiet

Nobel laureate Craig Mello, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in 2007.
Image: AP

The Associated Press reports that Nobel laureate and biologist Craig Mello knew of a pregnancy in China the one gene is present babies for months before the news went public. That a prominent scholar knew about this highly unethical work, but wanted to remain silent, is a serious cause for concern and a sign that culture must change for questionable research.

As reported by Candice Choi and Marilynn Marchione for the AP, Mello was a member of the scientific advisory board of Direct Genomics, a company owned by geneticist He Jiankui, the researcher behind the controversial and possibly criminal DNA processing. He, a scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, sent Mello an email in April 201

8, telling him about the pregnancy. Mello responded by condemning the work, but he resigned for eight years as a scientific advisor to He's company, which was not involved in the experiment, and resigned only after the news of the genetically-bred babies went public. Mello has not yet responded to a request from Gizmodo.

During a conference to edit the human genome in Hong Kong last November, he admitted to modify the DNA of embryos using the CRISPR gene editing tool and then implant it into her womb. Twin girls were born in early November with apparent immunity to HIV / AIDS, a consequence of the removal of the CCR5 gene. A second pregnancy was revealed by He at the conference. Although still unconfirmed, research was heavily criticized by the premature rise of gene editing technology because research was not considered medical and because the long-term effects of modification are unknown among many other concerns.

As it stands, most countries, including China and the United States, allow researchers to alter the DNA of human embryos, but leading a pregnancy with modified embryos is strictly prohibited. A recent investigation by the Chinese authorities found that not only did he violate this prohibition, but he also required laws to achieve "personal glory and profit," such as the issuing of ethics certificates and falsification of laboratory work. He was arrested by security authorities and is "strictly traded" according to Chinese state media.

The AP received emails between Mello and He through a public request. Mello, who was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Genetic Research, criticized his work. He wrote to Mello in an April 2018 e-mail titled "Success!"

Dear Craig,

Good news! The women [sic] are pregnant, the genome editing success! The embryo with CCR5 gene was transplanted to women 12 days ago, and today the pregnancy is confirmed!

Whereupon Mello replied:

I'm happy for you, but I'd rather not stay in hospital loop on this. I do not think this is a truly unmet medical need and therefore do not support the use of CRISPR for this indication. You risk the health of the child you are working on and, to my knowledge, there is no significant risk of [embryo] transmission to the IVF [HIV/AIDS]. In fact, the treatment itself feeds fear of HIV and a stigma that is not based on medical facts. I just do not understand why you do that.

I wish your patient good luck for a healthy pregnancy.

Despite his concerns, Mello stayed with Direct Genomics – and he appeared to be keeping himself researching about He's villains. Mello declined AP's request for an interview, but his university, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, made a statement to the AP in which Mello said his talks with He were "hypothetical and broad" and he did not know that he was capable of doing human gene manipulation. According to the AP report:

According to a statement provided by Mello, he approached Mello at a corporate meeting in November 2017 to discuss the possibility of using parents to treat HIV infection with the powerful CRISPR gene-editing tool prevent the child The statement says, Mello said he had no idea that he wanted to try this himself.

All this said Mello referred him to a colleague for advice on "pediatric HIV transmission risks for a therapy he is considering". About a week before the Hong Kong conference, Mello attended a Direct Genomics meeting in China, the AP reports.

This episode is obviously not good and underlines the commitment of scientists to speak out when evidence of unethical work emerges. In the AP article, bioethicist Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin, who worked at the conference in Hong Kong, is quoted as saying, "It's not clear" how someone like Mello could be "worrying" about his project. This is an absurd claim, since a simple tweet could have alarmed the whole world if you take Mello's prominent place in the scientific community. However, there are also more formal and discrete whistleblowing channels.

"If you hear of such a thing, you have a duty to report unethical behavior," said Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at the NYU School of Medicine, to Gizmodo. "You should at least go to the home institution of the researcher, find the dean or their immediate supervisor, and express your concerns. Ask them if they know about this research and if they have approved it.

Another option, Caplan says, is for the scientist to alert his peer group and ask colleagues if they have heard of this research. He said that the group could write a public letter together that accurately describes what they have learned, explains the problematic nature of the work, and condemns research. In addition, "the letter should recommend against any presentation of the work and publication of details in scientific journals," said Caplan. "After all, you do not want to give them [the unethical researcher] a platform."

Kerry Bowman, bioethicist at the University of Toronto, said that Mello's action shows how problematic a moratorium on embryo gene processing can be in the face of prominent scientists. They are unwilling to act on such reckless acts and clear ethical violations ,

"The inaction and silence point to a culture of limited ethical concern," Bowman told Gizmodo. "True research ethics is not just about what individuals do for research, but what they do and testify to."

It's obviously important to highlight people who mess up and should have known better, but more importantly, science must learn from this incident and form a culture in which it is unacceptable to remain silent.

[Associated Press]

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