China’s gene-editing doctor He Jiankui is missing, report says

A Chinese scientist, who claimed he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies, is missing, a report said on Monday. He Jiankui of Shenzhen, China, gave a presentation in Hong Kong last week on his controversial experiment and nobody seems to know his whereabouts, The South China Morning Post reported. The Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science … Continue reading “China’s gene-editing doctor He Jiankui is missing, report says”

A Chinese scientist, who claimed he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies, is missing, a report said on Monday.

He Jiankui of Shenzhen, China, gave a presentation in Hong Kong last week on his controversial experiment and nobody seems to know his whereabouts, The South China Morning Post reported.

The Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology dismissed claims that He has been detained, the paper reported. A spokeswoman declined to elaborate on the matter, saying, "We cannot answer any questions regarding the matter right now," The Morning Post reported.

The spokeswoman said the school will keep the media updated.

He claimed to have altered the DNA of twins Lulu and Nana to try to make them resistant to infection with the AIDS virus.

The claim has not been backed up in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, nor is there any independent confirmation. Mainstream scientists have condemned the experiment, and universities and government groups are investigating.

A group of leading scientists gathered at the international Human Genome Editing Conference last week, where He made his claims.

Although the science holds promise for helping those already born, the scientists said Thursday that it's irresponsible to try it on eggs, sperm or embryos because not enough is known yet about its risks or safety.

Speaking with the AP, the researcher said that he felt a "strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example," adding that "society will decide what to do next" whether it will be allowed or forbidden.

It's "unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible," said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

He has said a second pregnancy may be underway.

Last week, He posted a video to YouTube to discuss the claim and its implications.

Fox News’ Chris Ciaccia and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Amy Lieu is a news editor and reporter for Fox News.

China is halting the work by team on gene-edited babies

HONG KONG (AP) — China's government ordered a halt Thursday to work by a medical team that claimed to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies, as a group of leading scientists declared that it's still too soon to try to make permanent changes to DNA that can be inherited by future generations.

Chinese Vice Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping told state broadcaster CCTV that his ministry is strongly opposed to the efforts that reportedly produced twin girls born earlier this month. Xu called the team's actions illegal and unacceptable and said an investigation had been ordered, but made no mention of specific actions taken.

Researcher He Jiankui claims to have altered the DNA of the twins to try to make them resistant to infection with the AIDS virus. Mainstream scientists have condemned the experiment, and universities and government groups are investigating.

He's experiment "crossed the line of morality and ethics adhered to by the academic community and was shocking and unacceptable," Xu said.

A group of leading scientists gathered in Hong Kong this week for an international conference on gene editing, the ability to rewrite the code of life to try to correct or prevent diseases.

Although the science holds promise for helping people already born and studies testing that are underway, a statement issued Thursday by the 14-member conference leaders says it's irresponsible to try it on eggs, sperm or embryos except in lab research because not enough is known yet about its risks or safety.

The conference was rocked by the Chinese researcher's claim to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies. Conference leaders called for an independent investigation of the claim by He, who spoke to the group Wednesday as international criticism of his claim mounted.

There is no independent confirmation of what He says he did. He was scheduled to speak again at the conference on Thursday, but he left Hong Kong and through a spokesman sent a statement saying "I will remain in China, my home country, and cooperate fully with all inquiries about my work. My raw data will be made available for third party review."

Several prominent scientists said the case showed a failure of the field to police itself and the need for stricter principles or regulations.

"It's not unreasonable to expect the scientific community" to follow guidelines, said David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from California Institute of Technology who led the panel.

There already are some rules that should have prevented what He says he did, said Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin lawyer and bioethicist and a conference organizer.

"I think the failure was his, not the scientific community," Charo said.

Gene editing for reproductive purposes might be considered in the future "but only when there is compelling medical need," with clear understanding of risks and benefits, and certain other conditions, said Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, one of the conference sponsors.

"Not following these guidelines would be an irresponsible act," he added.

Other sponsors of the three-day conference are the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and U.S. National Academy Sciences.

Chinese researcher claims to have altered babies’ DNA

HONG KONG – A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies — twin girls whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

A U.S. scientist said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Many mainstream scientists think it's too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.

He said the parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and he would not say where they live or where the work was done.

There is no independent confirmation of He's claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. He revealed it Monday in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin Tuesday, and earlier in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.

"I feel a strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example," He told the AP. "Society will decide what to do next" in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.

It's "unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible," said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

"This is far too premature," said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."

However, one famed geneticist, Harvard University's George Church, defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called "a major and growing public health threat."

"I think this is justifiable," Church said of that goal.

In recent years scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body. The tool, called CRISPR-cas9, makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that's causing problems.

It's only recently been tried in adults to treat deadly diseases, and the changes are confined to that person. Editing sperm, eggs or embryos is different — the changes can be inherited. In the U.S., it's not allowed except for lab research. China outlaws human cloning but not specifically gene editing.

He Jiankui, who goes by "JK," studied at Rice and Stanford universities in the U.S. before returning to his homeland to open a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, where he also has two genetics companies.

The U.S. scientist who worked with him on this project after He returned to China was physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem, who was his adviser at Rice in Houston. Deem also holds what he called "a small stake" in — and is on the scientific advisory boards of — He's two companies.

The Chinese researcher said he practiced editing mice, monkey and human embryos in the lab for several years and has applied for patents on his methods.

He said he chose to try embryo gene editing for HIV because these infections are a big problem in China. He sought to disable a gene called CCR5 that forms a protein doorway that allows HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter a cell.

All of the men in the project had HIV and all of the women did not, but the gene editing was not aimed at preventing the small risk of transmission, He said. The fathers had their infections deeply suppressed by standard HIV medicines and there are simple ways to keep them from infecting offspring that do not involve altering genes.

Instead, the appeal was to offer couples affected by HIV a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate.

He recruited couples through a Beijing-based AIDS advocacy group called Baihualin. Its leader, known by the pseudonym "Bai Hua," told the AP that it's not uncommon for people with HIV to lose jobs or have trouble getting medical care if their infections are revealed.

Here is how He described the work:

The gene editing occurred during IVF, or lab dish fertilization. First, sperm was "washed" to separate it from semen, the fluid where HIV can lurk. A single sperm was placed into a single egg to create an embryo. Then the gene editing tool was added.

When the embryos were 3 to 5 days old, a few cells were removed and checked for editing. Couples could choose whether to use edited or unedited embryos for pregnancy attempts. In all, 16 of 22 embryos were edited, and 11 embryos were used in six implant attempts before the twin pregnancy was achieved, He said.

Tests suggest that one twin had both copies of the intended gene altered and the other twin had just one altered, with no evidence of harm to other genes, He said. People with one copy of the gene can still get HIV, although some very limited research suggests their health might decline more slowly once they do.

Several scientists reviewed materials that He provided to the AP and said tests so far are insufficient to say the editing worked or to rule out harm.

They also noted evidence that the editing was incomplete and that at least one twin appears to be a patchwork of cells with various changes.

"It's almost like not editing at all" if only some of certain cells were altered, because HIV infection can still occur, Church said.

Church and Musunuru questioned the decision to allow one of the embryos to be used in a pregnancy attempt, because the Chinese researchers said they knew in advance that both copies of the intended gene had not been altered.

"In that child, there really was almost nothing to be gained in terms of protection against HIV and yet you're exposing that child to all the unknown safety risks," Musunuru said.

The use of that embryo suggests that the researchers' "main emphasis was on testing editing rather than avoiding this disease," Church said.

Even if editing worked perfectly, people without normal CCR5 genes face higher risks of getting certain other viruses, such as West Nile, and of dying from the flu. Since there are many ways to prevent HIV infection and it's very treatable if it occurs, those other medical risks are a concern, Musunuru said.

There also are questions about the way He said he proceeded. He gave official notice of his work long after he said he started it — on Nov. 8, on a Chinese registry of clinical trials.

It's unclear whether participants fully understood the purpose and potential risks and benefits. For example, consent forms called the project an "AIDS vaccine development" program.

The Rice scientist, Deem, said he was present in China when potential participants gave their consent and that he "absolutely" thinks they were able to understand the risks.

Deem said he worked with He on vaccine research at Rice and considers the gene editing similar to a vaccine.

"That might be a layman's way of describing it," he said.

Both men are physics experts with no experience running human clinical trials.

The Chinese scientist, He, said he personally made the goals clear and told participants that embryo gene editing has never been tried before and carries risks. He said he also would provide insurance coverage for any children conceived through the project and plans medical followup until the children are 18 and longer if they agree once they're adults.

Further pregnancy attempts are on hold until the safety of this one is analyzed and experts in the field weigh in, but participants were not told in advance that they might not have a chance to try what they signed up for once a "first" was achieved, He acknowledged. Free fertility treatment was part of the deal they were offered.

He sought and received approval for his project from Shenzhen Harmonicare Women's and Children's Hospital, which is not one of the four hospitals that He said provided embryos for his research or the pregnancy attempts.

Some staff at some of the other hospitals were kept in the dark about the nature of the research, which He and Deem said was done to keep some participants' HIV infection from being disclosed.

"We think this is ethical," said Lin Zhitong, a Harmonicare administrator who heads the ethics panel.

Any medical staff who handled samples that might contain HIV were aware, He said. An embryologist in He's lab, Qin Jinzhou, confirmed to the AP that he did sperm washing and injected the gene editing tool in some of the pregnancy attempts.

The study participants are not ethicists, He said, but "are as much authorities on what is correct and what is wrong because it's their life on the line."

"I believe this is going to help the families and their children," He said. If it causes unwanted side effects or harm, "I would feel the same pain as they do and it's going to be my own responsibility."

World’s first genetically edited babies? International outrage ensues as Chinese scientist makes bold claim

A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life. The claims have resulted in international outrage and the university where the researcher is working said the work "has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct."

The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.

He said the parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and he would not say where they live or where the work was done. News of the research was first reported by the Associated Press. Jiankui's claim has not been backed up in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, nor is there any independent confirmation.

CRISPR DNA EDITING COULD DO SOME SERIOUS GENETIC DAMAGE, STUDY SAYS

Southern University of Science and Technology, where Jiankui works, issued a statement, seemingly condemning the claim.

"The University was deeply shocked by this event and has taken immediate action to reach Dr. Jiankui HE for clarification. Dr. Jiankui HE’s previous affiliation, the Department of Biology (hereafter the Department) called an emergency meeting of the Department Academic Committee," the university said in a statement.

The university wanted to make it clear that there were three takeaways from its statement:

1. The research was conducted outside of the campus and was not reported to the University nor the Department. The University and the Department were unaware of the research project and its nature.
2. The SUSTech Department of Biology Academic Committee believes that Dr. Jiankui HE’s conduct in utilizing CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct.
3. All research conducted at SUSTech is required to abide by laws and regulations, and comply with international academic ethics and codes of conduct.

"The University will call for international experts to form an independent committee to investigate this incident, and to release the results to the public," the university added.

Others called for extensive scrutiny regarding Jiankui's claims, including one of CRISPR's co-inventors, Dr. Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley, who said that the work needs to be verified before it can be substantiated.

“If verified, this work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing," Dr. Doudna said.

“It is essential that this report not cast an untoward shadow on the many important ongoing and planned clinical efforts to use CRISPR technology to treat and cure existing genetic, infectious, and common disease in adults and in children," Dr. Doudna added. "It is also important that public and transparent discussion of the many uses of genome editing technology continue, as is happening over the next three days at the Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong.”

It's "unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible," said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

"This is far too premature," said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."

FUTURISTIC GENE EDITING TECHNOLOGY MAY CAUSE CANCER

In addition, more than 100 scientists signed a petition for greater oversight on gene editing experiments in light of Jiankui's claim and city officials where the lab is located have also launched a medical and ethics investigation.

Speaking with the AP, Jiankui said that he felt a "strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example," adding that "society will decide what to do next" whether it will be allowed or forbidden.

Jiankui posted a video to YouTube to discuss the claim and its implications.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

Farm animals may soon get new features through gene editing

OAKFIELD, N.Y. (AP) — Cows that can withstand hotter temperatures. Cows born without pesky horns. Pigs that never reach puberty.

A company wants to alter farm animals by adding and subtracting genetic traits in a lab. It sounds like science fiction, but Recombinetics sees opportunity for its technology in the livestock industry.

But first, it needs to convince regulators that gene-edited animals are no different than conventionally bred ones. To make the technology appealing and to ease any fears that it may be creating Franken-animals, Recombinetics isn't starting with productivity. Instead, it's introducing gene-edited traits as a way to ease animal suffering.

"It's a better story to tell," said Tammy Lee, CEO of the St. Paul, Minnesota-based company.

For instance, animal welfare advocates have long criticized the way farmers use caustic paste or hot irons to dehorn dairy cows so the animals don't harm each other. Recombinetics snips out the gene for growing horns so the procedure is unnecessary.

Last year, a bull gene-edited by Recombinetics to have the dominant hornless trait sired several offspring. All were born hornless as expected, and are being raised at the University of California, Davis. Once the female offspring starts lactating, its milk will be tested for any abnormalities.

Another Recombinetics project: castration-free pigs.

When male piglets go through puberty, their meat can take on an unpleasant odor, something known as "boar taint." To combat it, farmers castrate pigs, a procedure animal welfare advocates say is commonly performed without painkillers. Editing genes so that pigs never go through puberty would make castration unnecessary.

Also in development are dairy cows that could withstand higher temperatures, so the animals don't suffer in hotter climates.

Recombinetics and others say gene-editing techniques do what traditional breeding has always done, except much faster and with the precision of "molecular scissors." They are waiting for clarity from government officials, but say meat and milk from gene-edited animals shouldn't be subject to special regulations.

Most U.S. dairy cows already are bred through artificial insemination from "semen straws," which are priced for a bull's pedigree and traits developed through years of traditional breeding. Gene-edited traits would just be higher-priced extras, Recombinetics says. For example, the hornless trait could add $3 to $5 to the price of a semen straw that could cost around $15.

Once gene-editing is accepted by the public, farmers will be more interested in traits that step up productivity, Lee predicted. As an example, she cited pigs edited to have bigger litters.

CHICKENS AS BIG AS ELEPHANT?

Before food from gene-edited animals can land on dinner tables, however, Recombinetics has to overcome any public unease about the technology.

Beyond worries about "playing God," it may be an uncomfortable reminder of how modern food production already treats animals, said Paul Thompson, a professor of agriculture at Michigan State University.

"There's an ethical question that's been debated for at least the last 20 years, of whether you need to change the animal or change the system," Thompson said.

Support for gene editing will also likely depend on how the technology is used: whether it's for animal welfare, productivity or disease resistance. In August, a Pew study found 43 percent of Americans supported genetically engineered animals for more nutritious meat.

The array of possibilities is why the Humane Society of the United States supports gene-editing to end pig castrations and cow dehorning but doesn't give the technology its blanket approval.

"If you edit for your chicken to be the size of an elephant, that's not good," said Josh Balk, the group's vice president of farm animal protection.

The image seems preposterous, but it may not be far off from what the words "gene-edited animals" conjure for many. In the science-fiction movie "Rampage" earlier this year, gene-editing is used to create monsters, including a giant wolf that shoots porcupine spikes from its tail.

Some may also question the need to risk using the technology, if it really just speeds up what could be achieved with conventional breeding.

Advances in traditional breeding have already stepped up the productivity of cows, chickens and pigs. Today, milk producers can shop for characteristics developed through conventional breeding, like body frames and how efficiently animals convert feed into meat. Semex, a Canadian seller of bull semen, offers already offers a "Robot Ready" option for cows "built for automation," with teat lengths and temperaments bred for milking machines.

The company is working with Recombinetics to develop the gene-edited hornless trait.

Notably, hornless dairy cows also already exist. But Recombinetics says there are so few that breeding them would compromise the valuable traits that have been carefully bred into modern dairy cows.

But John Burket, who breeds hornless dairy cows in Pennsylvania, thinks the hornless trait could spread quickly if it was prioritized.

Burket isn't opposed to gene-editing, but he said he's waiting to see if the technology delivers.

"ROBOT READY" COWS

For now, a more practical challenge for Recombinetics will be coming up with gene-edited traits farmers are willing to pay for. Semex says it will take at least two years of testing before it can start selling the hornless trait for dairy cows.

Conventional breeding comes with a lot more chance, but advances over the years have nevertheless made dairy farms increasingly productive. Paradoxically, that has contributed to a glut of milk, driving down prices and pressuring farmers.

Recombinetics says improving productivity isn't just about producing more milk or meat but targeting inefficiencies like dehorning and pig castrations. Still, Lorraine Lewandrowski, a dairy farmer in upstate New York, is reminded of the skepticism she felt with bovine growth hormone in the 1990s.

"Do we want another technology that will put even more milk on the market?" she said.

Lewandrowski is also wary of anything that might give the dairy industry a bad image. But she noted the gene-edited hornless trait could save the time spent on dehorning.

Jonathan Lamb, an owner of Oakfield Dairy in western New York, said he wouldn't pay much extra for the hornless trait; he's watching costs because of low milk prices. But he thinks gene-editing could offer other improvements.

"I see that as a first step to other possibilities," he said.

Chinese researcher claims second pregnancy with gene-edited baby is underway

A Chinese scientist who claims he helped make the world's first gene-edited babies said Wednesday that a second pregnancy is underway amid increasing worry from leading scientists who question the experiment’s ethics.

He Jiankui, of Shenzhen, spoke at the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong where his experiment was called “irresponsible.” The work is highly controversial because the changes can be inherited and harm other genes. It's banned in some countries including the United States.

He has said his goal wasn’t to cure or prevent an inherited disease but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.

He so far has claimed he helped create twin girls whose DNA he said he altered to make them resistant to possible future infection with the AIDS virus.

It is too early to tell if the second potential pregnancy will last, as He said it needs to be monitored carefully because it's in a very early stage.

He Jiankui, who goes by "JK," studied at Rice and Stanford universities in the U.S. before returning to his homeland to open a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, where he also has two genetics companies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Chinese researcher claims to have altered babies’ DNA

HONG KONG – A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies — twin girls whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

A U.S. scientist said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Many mainstream scientists think it's too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.

He said the parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and he would not say where they live or where the work was done.

There is no independent confirmation of He's claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. He revealed it Monday in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin Tuesday, and earlier in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.

"I feel a strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example," He told the AP. "Society will decide what to do next" in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.

It's "unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible," said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

"This is far too premature," said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."

However, one famed geneticist, Harvard University's George Church, defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called "a major and growing public health threat."

"I think this is justifiable," Church said of that goal.

In recent years scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body. The tool, called CRISPR-cas9, makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that's causing problems.

It's only recently been tried in adults to treat deadly diseases, and the changes are confined to that person. Editing sperm, eggs or embryos is different — the changes can be inherited. In the U.S., it's not allowed except for lab research. China outlaws human cloning but not specifically gene editing.

He Jiankui, who goes by "JK," studied at Rice and Stanford universities in the U.S. before returning to his homeland to open a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, where he also has two genetics companies.

The U.S. scientist who worked with him on this project after He returned to China was physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem, who was his adviser at Rice in Houston. Deem also holds what he called "a small stake" in — and is on the scientific advisory boards of — He's two companies.

The Chinese researcher said he practiced editing mice, monkey and human embryos in the lab for several years and has applied for patents on his methods.

He said he chose to try embryo gene editing for HIV because these infections are a big problem in China. He sought to disable a gene called CCR5 that forms a protein doorway that allows HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter a cell.

All of the men in the project had HIV and all of the women did not, but the gene editing was not aimed at preventing the small risk of transmission, He said. The fathers had their infections deeply suppressed by standard HIV medicines and there are simple ways to keep them from infecting offspring that do not involve altering genes.

Instead, the appeal was to offer couples affected by HIV a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate.

He recruited couples through a Beijing-based AIDS advocacy group called Baihualin. Its leader, known by the pseudonym "Bai Hua," told the AP that it's not uncommon for people with HIV to lose jobs or have trouble getting medical care if their infections are revealed.

Here is how He described the work:

The gene editing occurred during IVF, or lab dish fertilization. First, sperm was "washed" to separate it from semen, the fluid where HIV can lurk. A single sperm was placed into a single egg to create an embryo. Then the gene editing tool was added.

When the embryos were 3 to 5 days old, a few cells were removed and checked for editing. Couples could choose whether to use edited or unedited embryos for pregnancy attempts. In all, 16 of 22 embryos were edited, and 11 embryos were used in six implant attempts before the twin pregnancy was achieved, He said.

Tests suggest that one twin had both copies of the intended gene altered and the other twin had just one altered, with no evidence of harm to other genes, He said. People with one copy of the gene can still get HIV, although some very limited research suggests their health might decline more slowly once they do.

Several scientists reviewed materials that He provided to the AP and said tests so far are insufficient to say the editing worked or to rule out harm.

They also noted evidence that the editing was incomplete and that at least one twin appears to be a patchwork of cells with various changes.

"It's almost like not editing at all" if only some of certain cells were altered, because HIV infection can still occur, Church said.

Church and Musunuru questioned the decision to allow one of the embryos to be used in a pregnancy attempt, because the Chinese researchers said they knew in advance that both copies of the intended gene had not been altered.

"In that child, there really was almost nothing to be gained in terms of protection against HIV and yet you're exposing that child to all the unknown safety risks," Musunuru said.

The use of that embryo suggests that the researchers' "main emphasis was on testing editing rather than avoiding this disease," Church said.

Even if editing worked perfectly, people without normal CCR5 genes face higher risks of getting certain other viruses, such as West Nile, and of dying from the flu. Since there are many ways to prevent HIV infection and it's very treatable if it occurs, those other medical risks are a concern, Musunuru said.

There also are questions about the way He said he proceeded. He gave official notice of his work long after he said he started it — on Nov. 8, on a Chinese registry of clinical trials.

It's unclear whether participants fully understood the purpose and potential risks and benefits. For example, consent forms called the project an "AIDS vaccine development" program.

The Rice scientist, Deem, said he was present in China when potential participants gave their consent and that he "absolutely" thinks they were able to understand the risks.

Deem said he worked with He on vaccine research at Rice and considers the gene editing similar to a vaccine.

"That might be a layman's way of describing it," he said.

Both men are physics experts with no experience running human clinical trials.

The Chinese scientist, He, said he personally made the goals clear and told participants that embryo gene editing has never been tried before and carries risks. He said he also would provide insurance coverage for any children conceived through the project and plans medical followup until the children are 18 and longer if they agree once they're adults.

Further pregnancy attempts are on hold until the safety of this one is analyzed and experts in the field weigh in, but participants were not told in advance that they might not have a chance to try what they signed up for once a "first" was achieved, He acknowledged. Free fertility treatment was part of the deal they were offered.

He sought and received approval for his project from Shenzhen Harmonicare Women's and Children's Hospital, which is not one of the four hospitals that He said provided embryos for his research or the pregnancy attempts.

Some staff at some of the other hospitals were kept in the dark about the nature of the research, which He and Deem said was done to keep some participants' HIV infection from being disclosed.

"We think this is ethical," said Lin Zhitong, a Harmonicare administrator who heads the ethics panel.

Any medical staff who handled samples that might contain HIV were aware, He said. An embryologist in He's lab, Qin Jinzhou, confirmed to the AP that he did sperm washing and injected the gene editing tool in some of the pregnancy attempts.

The study participants are not ethicists, He said, but "are as much authorities on what is correct and what is wrong because it's their life on the line."

"I believe this is going to help the families and their children," He said. If it causes unwanted side effects or harm, "I would feel the same pain as they do and it's going to be my own responsibility."

Farm animals may soon get new features through gene editing

OAKFIELD, N.Y. (AP) — Cows that can withstand hotter temperatures. Cows born without pesky horns. Pigs that never reach puberty.

A company wants to alter farm animals by adding and subtracting genetic traits in a lab. It sounds like science fiction, but Recombinetics sees opportunity for its technology in the livestock industry.

But first, it needs to convince regulators that gene-edited animals are no different than conventionally bred ones. To make the technology appealing and to ease any fears that it may be creating Franken-animals, Recombinetics isn't starting with productivity. Instead, it's introducing gene-edited traits as a way to ease animal suffering.

"It's a better story to tell," said Tammy Lee, CEO of the St. Paul, Minnesota-based company.

For instance, animal welfare advocates have long criticized the way farmers use caustic paste or hot irons to dehorn dairy cows so the animals don't harm each other. Recombinetics snips out the gene for growing horns so the procedure is unnecessary.

Last year, a bull gene-edited by Recombinetics to have the dominant hornless trait sired several offspring. All were born hornless as expected, and are being raised at the University of California, Davis. Once the female offspring starts lactating, its milk will be tested for any abnormalities.

Another Recombinetics project: castration-free pigs.

When male piglets go through puberty, their meat can take on an unpleasant odor, something known as "boar taint." To combat it, farmers castrate pigs, a procedure animal welfare advocates say is commonly performed without painkillers. Editing genes so that pigs never go through puberty would make castration unnecessary.

Also in development are dairy cows that could withstand higher temperatures, so the animals don't suffer in hotter climates.

Recombinetics and others say gene-editing techniques do what traditional breeding has always done, except much faster and with the precision of "molecular scissors." They are waiting for clarity from government officials, but say meat and milk from gene-edited animals shouldn't be subject to special regulations.

Most U.S. dairy cows already are bred through artificial insemination from "semen straws," which are priced for a bull's pedigree and traits developed through years of traditional breeding. Gene-edited traits would just be higher-priced extras, Recombinetics says. For example, the hornless trait could add $3 to $5 to the price of a semen straw that could cost around $15.

Once gene-editing is accepted by the public, farmers will be more interested in traits that step up productivity, Lee predicted. As an example, she cited pigs edited to have bigger litters.

CHICKENS AS BIG AS ELEPHANT?

Before food from gene-edited animals can land on dinner tables, however, Recombinetics has to overcome any public unease about the technology.

Beyond worries about "playing God," it may be an uncomfortable reminder of how modern food production already treats animals, said Paul Thompson, a professor of agriculture at Michigan State University.

"There's an ethical question that's been debated for at least the last 20 years, of whether you need to change the animal or change the system," Thompson said.

Support for gene editing will also likely depend on how the technology is used: whether it's for animal welfare, productivity or disease resistance. In August, a Pew study found 43 percent of Americans supported genetically engineered animals for more nutritious meat.

The array of possibilities is why the Humane Society of the United States supports gene-editing to end pig castrations and cow dehorning but doesn't give the technology its blanket approval.

"If you edit for your chicken to be the size of an elephant, that's not good," said Josh Balk, the group's vice president of farm animal protection.

The image seems preposterous, but it may not be far off from what the words "gene-edited animals" conjure for many. In the science-fiction movie "Rampage" earlier this year, gene-editing is used to create monsters, including a giant wolf that shoots porcupine spikes from its tail.

Some may also question the need to risk using the technology, if it really just speeds up what could be achieved with conventional breeding.

Advances in traditional breeding have already stepped up the productivity of cows, chickens and pigs. Today, milk producers can shop for characteristics developed through conventional breeding, like body frames and how efficiently animals convert feed into meat. Semex, a Canadian seller of bull semen, offers already offers a "Robot Ready" option for cows "built for automation," with teat lengths and temperaments bred for milking machines.

The company is working with Recombinetics to develop the gene-edited hornless trait.

Notably, hornless dairy cows also already exist. But Recombinetics says there are so few that breeding them would compromise the valuable traits that have been carefully bred into modern dairy cows.

But John Burket, who breeds hornless dairy cows in Pennsylvania, thinks the hornless trait could spread quickly if it was prioritized.

Burket isn't opposed to gene-editing, but he said he's waiting to see if the technology delivers.

"ROBOT READY" COWS

For now, a more practical challenge for Recombinetics will be coming up with gene-edited traits farmers are willing to pay for. Semex says it will take at least two years of testing before it can start selling the hornless trait for dairy cows.

Conventional breeding comes with a lot more chance, but advances over the years have nevertheless made dairy farms increasingly productive. Paradoxically, that has contributed to a glut of milk, driving down prices and pressuring farmers.

Recombinetics says improving productivity isn't just about producing more milk or meat but targeting inefficiencies like dehorning and pig castrations. Still, Lorraine Lewandrowski, a dairy farmer in upstate New York, is reminded of the skepticism she felt with bovine growth hormone in the 1990s.

"Do we want another technology that will put even more milk on the market?" she said.

Lewandrowski is also wary of anything that might give the dairy industry a bad image. But she noted the gene-edited hornless trait could save the time spent on dehorning.

Jonathan Lamb, an owner of Oakfield Dairy in western New York, said he wouldn't pay much extra for the hornless trait; he's watching costs because of low milk prices. But he thinks gene-editing could offer other improvements.

"I see that as a first step to other possibilities," he said.

World’s first genetically edited babies? International outrage ensues as Chinese scientist makes bold claim

A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life. The claims have resulted in international outrage and the university where the researcher is working said the work "has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct."

The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.

He said the parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and he would not say where they live or where the work was done. News of the research was first reported by the Associated Press. Jiankui's claim has not been backed up in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, nor is there any independent confirmation.

CRISPR DNA EDITING COULD DO SOME SERIOUS GENETIC DAMAGE, STUDY SAYS

Southern University of Science and Technology, where Jiankui works, issued a statement, seemingly condemning the claim.

"The University was deeply shocked by this event and has taken immediate action to reach Dr. Jiankui HE for clarification. Dr. Jiankui HE’s previous affiliation, the Department of Biology (hereafter the Department) called an emergency meeting of the Department Academic Committee," the university said in a statement.

The university wanted to make it clear that there were three takeaways from its statement:

1. The research was conducted outside of the campus and was not reported to the University nor the Department. The University and the Department were unaware of the research project and its nature.
2. The SUSTech Department of Biology Academic Committee believes that Dr. Jiankui HE’s conduct in utilizing CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct.
3. All research conducted at SUSTech is required to abide by laws and regulations, and comply with international academic ethics and codes of conduct.

"The University will call for international experts to form an independent committee to investigate this incident, and to release the results to the public," the university added.

Others called for extensive scrutiny regarding Jiankui's claims, including one of CRISPR's co-inventors, Dr. Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley, who said that the work needs to be verified before it can be substantiated.

“If verified, this work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing," Dr. Doudna said.

“It is essential that this report not cast an untoward shadow on the many important ongoing and planned clinical efforts to use CRISPR technology to treat and cure existing genetic, infectious, and common disease in adults and in children," Dr. Doudna added. "It is also important that public and transparent discussion of the many uses of genome editing technology continue, as is happening over the next three days at the Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong.”

It's "unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible," said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

"This is far too premature," said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."

FUTURISTIC GENE EDITING TECHNOLOGY MAY CAUSE CANCER

In addition, more than 100 scientists signed a petition for greater oversight on gene editing experiments in light of Jiankui's claim and city officials where the lab is located have also launched a medical and ethics investigation.

Speaking with the AP, Jiankui said that he felt a "strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example," adding that "society will decide what to do next" whether it will be allowed or forbidden.

Jiankui posted a video to YouTube to discuss the claim and its implications.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

World’s first genetically edited babies? International outrage ensues as Chinese scientist makes bold claim

A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life. The claims have resulted in international outrage and the university where the researcher is working said the work "has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct."

The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.

He said the parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and he would not say where they live or where the work was done. News of the research was first reported by the Associated Press. Jiankui's claim has not been backed up in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, nor is there any independent confirmation.

CRISPR DNA EDITING COULD DO SOME SERIOUS GENETIC DAMAGE, STUDY SAYS

Southern University of Science and Technology, where Jiankui works, issued a statement, seemingly condemning the claim.

"The University was deeply shocked by this event and has taken immediate action to reach Dr. Jiankui HE for clarification. Dr. Jiankui HE’s previous affiliation, the Department of Biology (hereafter the Department) called an emergency meeting of the Department Academic Committee," the university said in a statement.

The university wanted to make it clear that there were three takeaways from its statement:

1. The research was conducted outside of the campus and was not reported to the University nor the Department. The University and the Department were unaware of the research project and its nature.
2. The SUSTech Department of Biology Academic Committee believes that Dr. Jiankui HE’s conduct in utilizing CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct.
3. All research conducted at SUSTech is required to abide by laws and regulations, and comply with international academic ethics and codes of conduct.

"The University will call for international experts to form an independent committee to investigate this incident, and to release the results to the public," the university added.

Others called for extensive scrutiny regarding Jiankui's claims, including one of CRISPR's co-inventors, Dr. Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley, who said that the work needs to be verified before it can be substantiated.

“If verified, this work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing," Dr. Doudna said.

“It is essential that this report not cast an untoward shadow on the many important ongoing and planned clinical efforts to use CRISPR technology to treat and cure existing genetic, infectious, and common disease in adults and in children," Dr. Doudna added. "It is also important that public and transparent discussion of the many uses of genome editing technology continue, as is happening over the next three days at the Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong.”

It's "unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible," said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

"This is far too premature," said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."

FUTURISTIC GENE EDITING TECHNOLOGY MAY CAUSE CANCER

In addition, more than 100 scientists signed a petition for greater oversight on gene editing experiments in light of Jiankui's claim and city officials where the lab is located have also launched a medical and ethics investigation.

Speaking with the AP, Jiankui said that he felt a "strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example," adding that "society will decide what to do next" whether it will be allowed or forbidden.

Jiankui posted a video to YouTube to discuss the claim and its implications.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia