The Associated Press reports that Nobel laureate and biologist Craig Mello knew about the pregnancy in China with the participation of children with edited genes few months before the news became public. What an outstanding 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 needs to change.
CRISPR, Nobel laureates and design Gemini
Mello worked in the academic Advisory Council Direct Genomics, a company owned by Xe Cisangkuy genetics, who led all of this contradictory and possibly criminal work to edit genes. In April 2018 he wrote Mello and told about the pregnancy. Mello replied, condemning the job, but remained a scientific consultant of the company Xe, which was not involved in the experiment, for the next eight months, and resigned only after the news about genetically modified twins became public. Mello declined to comment.
During the conference editing of the human genome in Hong Kong in November this year Hye admitted that modified the DNA of embryos by using gene editing tool CRISPR, and then implanted them in the womb. Twin girls were born in early November, with the apparent immunity to HIV/AIDS, which was the result of the deletion of the gene CCR5. He also reported that the second pregnancy at the conference. His study, though not confirmed, was heavily criticized in connection with the current raw state of the technology to edit the genes, because the study was not considered necessary from a medical point of view, but also because the long-term consequences of the modification is unknown, among other concerns.
Currently, most countries, including China and the United States, allow scientists to modify DNA in human embryos, but cause a pregnancy using modified embryos is strictly prohibited. Recently completed by the Chinese authorities, the investigation revealed that He, in addition to the violation of this prohibition, broke the law in pursuit of “personal glory and profit,” ethical counterfeiting certificates and falsifying laboratory work. According to Chinese state media, he was detained by security agencies and “it will apply strict measures.”
The Associated Press received e-mails Mello and He. As the correspondence shows, Mello, received the Nobel prize in 2006 for research in the field of genetics, were critical to the work Heh. In April 2018 Heh Mello wrote:
Good news! The woman (sic) is pregnant, successfully edited the genome. The embryo with the edited CCR5 gene were transplanted woman 12 days ago and today pregnancy confirmed”.
What Mello said
“Good for you, but I wouldn’t dwell on it. I think that all of this is not truly in need of meeting the medical need, and therefore does not support the use of CRISPR for this. You risk the health of the child, which I edit, and as far as I know, there is no significant risk of transmission of HIV/AIDS the embryo in the IVF process. In fact, this very treatment fuels the fear of HIV and stigma, not based on any medical facts. I just don’t understand why you do it.
I wish your patient luck and a healthy pregnancy”.
Despite the attitude, Mello stayed with Direct Genomics and kept quiet about the secret research He. Mello declined to comment, but his University and Medical school at the University of Massachusetts, gave a statement in which Mello said his conversation with Hye was “speculative and broad,” and that he did not know that he is capable of editing the genome. Supposedly, Mello had no idea that the Xe is going to try to do it myself.
Obviously, this episode is not good and he emphasizes the duty of scientists to speak out when there is emerging evidence of carrying out unethical work. Even a simple tweet could alert the whole world, given the prominent position of Director of support in the scientific community. However, there are more formal and strict channels of information about violations.
“When you hear about something like that, you have a duty to report unethical behavior,” says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist Medical school at new York University. “At least, you should go to the home institution of the researcher, to find Dean or immediate supervisor and Express their concerns. Ask them if they know about this study and approved if it.”
Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist from the University of Toronto, says that the actions of Mello shows how problematic can be a moratorium on editing the genes of embryos, when even prominent scientists do not want to take action against such a reckless act and a clear ethical violation.