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US Nobelist Craig Mello Knew About He Jiankui's Gene-Edited Babies




(Newser)

Long before the claims of the world's first genetically-born babies became public, Chinese researcher He Jiankui shared the news with a US Nobel laureate who refused the experiment but remained a consultant to Hes Biotech. The revelation that another prominent scientist knew about the work, which was largely condemned at its revelation, comes in the light of scientists debating whether and how to draw attention to problematic research and the need for clearer guidelines. E-mails received by the AP show Nobel laureate Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts last April in a message titled "Succeed!" About the pregnancy learned. "I'm happy for you, but I do not want to be kept up to date," Mello replied. "You risk the health of the child you are working on … I just can not understand why you do that and I wish your patient all the best for a healthy pregnancy."

Mello remained as a scientific adviser to He's Direct Genomics Company for another eight months, until December, shortly after the birth dates. Several American researchers knew or had the strong suspicion that he was trying to embryo gene editing. His announcement to Mello in April is notable because it was stated that the pregnancy had been achieved and came on the day he found out about it. Editing embryos intended for pregnancy is not allowed in the US and many other places, as there is a risk that DNA alterations may be passed on to future generations. However, there is no sure way to stop a rogue researcher from experimenting, as gene editing technology is cheap and easy to use. A University of Minnesota bioethicist says the lack of action by scientists who learned of his intentions indicated a broader culture of silence with "multiple lost opportunities." (More about the problems of He Jiankui.)

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