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The Nobel Prize-winning biologist knew about children who had been edited by genes for several months, but remained calm



Nobel laureate Craig Mello, professor of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Massachusetts, in 2007.
Image: AP

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

Like Candice Choi and Marilyn Marcion for AP, Mello served on the Scientific Advisory Board of Direct Genomics, a company owned by geneticist He Jiankui, a researcher for controversial and possibly criminal genetically-edited activities. He, a scientist from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, wrote Mello in April 2018, telling him about pregnancy. Mello responded by condemning this job, but he remained a scientific advisor to He, which did not participate in the experiment, resigned for the next eight months only after news of genetically-edited children became public, according to AP. Mello has not yet responded to Gizmodo's request for comment.

During a conference on the editing of the human genome 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 womb. Twin girls were born in early November with obvious immunity to HIV / AIDS, which is a consequence of the deletion of the CCR5 gene. He also reported on a second pregnancy at the conference. The study, although not confirmed, was sharply criticized due to the current premature state of the technology of gene editing, 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 many other problems.

Currently, most countries, including China and the United States, allow researchers to modify the DNA of human embryos, but to cause pregnancy with the help of modified embryos is strictly prohibited. A recent investigation by the Chinese authorities revealed that He, in addition to violating this prohibition, violated the law, pursuing "personal fame and gain," such as faking ethical certificates and falsifying laboratory work. According to reports from the Chinese state media, he was detained by security forces and would be “abused”.

AP received emails between Mello and He through a public post request. As the correspondence between the two exhibitions shows, Mello, who received the Nobel Prize in 2006 for research in the field of genetics, was critical of He's work. In an e-mail in April 2018 under the title “Success!” He wrote Mello:

Dear Craig,

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

To which Mello replied:

I'm happy for you, but I would not dwell on it. I think this is not a true unmet medical need, and therefore do not support the use of CRISPR for this indication. You risk the health of the child you are editing, and as far as I know, there is no significant risk [HIV/AIDS] embryo transfer by IVF. In fact, treatment in itself causes fear of HIV and stigma, which is not based on any medical facts. I just do not understand why you are doing this.

I wish your patient good luck for a healthy pregnancy.

Despite his reservations, Mello stayed with Direct Genomics – and he seemed to be silent about Hooligan research. Mello rejected the request of A.P. about the interview, but his university, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, provided AP with a statement in which Mello said that his conversations with Him were “hypothetical and broad” and that he did not know that he was capable of editing human genes. According to the AP message:

According to a Mello University statement, he turned to Mello during a break at a company meeting in November 2017 to talk about the possibility of using a powerful tool for editing the CRISPR genes to prevent HIV infection from parent to child. The statement says that Mello said that he had no idea that He was going to try it himself.

All of this suggests that Mello sent him to a colleague for advice on the "risk of HIV transmission in children during the treatment he is considering," and Mello attended the Direct Genomics meeting in China about a week before the Hong Kong conference, reports Ap.

This episode is clearly not good, and he emphasizes the duty of scientists to speak out when evidence of unethical work appears. In an AP article, bioethics from the University of Wisconsin Alta Charo, who co-chaired the conference in Hong Kong, quoted the words “unclear” how someone like Mello “could have raised concerns” about the Xe project. This is an absurd statement, given that a simple tweet, for example, could alert the whole world, given the prominent position of Mello in the scientific community. But there are more formal and restrained channels for reporting violations.

“When you hear something like this, you are obligated to report unethical behavior,” said Gizmodo Arthur Kaplan, bioethics at NYU School of Medicine. “At a minimum, you should 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 study and whether they approved it. ”

According to Kaplan, another option is for the interested scientist to warn his peers by asking colleagues if they have heard of this research. However, according to him, the group may issue a public letter detailing what they learned, explaining the problematic nature of the work and condemning the study. Moreover, “the letter should recommend against any ideas about the work and the publication of details in scientific journals,” said Kaplan. "In the end, you do not want to give them [the unethical researcher] platform."

Kerry Bowman, bioethics at the University of Toronto, said that Mello’s actions show how problematic the moratorium on editing embryo genes can be when eminent scientists don’t want to take action on this reckless act and a clear ethical violation.

“Inaction and silence imply a culture of limited ethical concern,” said Bowman Gizmodo. “Real research ethics is not only what people do for research, but also what they are and are witnesses.”

Obviously, it is important to shed light on people who are confused and should have known better, but, more importantly, the scientific community should learn from this incident and create a culture in which it is not customary to remain silent.

[Associated Press]

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