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Experiments that led to the first gene-edited babies: the ethical failings and the urgent need for better governance

Li, Jing-ru, Walker, Simon, Nie, Jing-bao, Zhang, Xin-qing
Journal of Zhejiang University 2019 v.20 no.1 pp. 32-38
Human immunodeficiency virus, bioethics, biomedical research, gene editing, germ cells, governance, guidelines, humans, infants, professional ethics, China
The rapid developments of science and technology in China over recent decades, particularly in biomedical research, have brought forward serious challenges regarding ethical governance. Recently, Jian-kui HE, a Chinese scientist, claimed to have “created” the first gene-edited babies, designed to be naturally immune to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The news immediately triggered widespread criticism, denouncement, and debate over the scientific and ethical legitimacy of HE’s genetic experiments. China’s guidelines and regulations have banned germline genome editing on human embryos for clinical use because of scientific and ethical concerns, in accordance with the international consensus. HE’s human experimentation has not only violated these Chinese regulations, but also breached other ethical and regulatory norms. These include questionable scientific value, unreasonable risk-benefit ratio, illegitimate ethics review, invalid informed consent, and regulatory misconduct. This series of ethical failings of HE and his team reveal the institutional failure of the current ethics governance system which largely depends on scientist’s self-regulation. The incident highlights the need for urgent improvement of ethics governance at all levels, the enforcement of technical and ethical guidelines, and the establishment of laws relating to such bioethical issues.