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US Nobelist Knew About Gene-Edited Babies

Craig Mello was on board of He Jiankui's biotech company
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 29, 2019 9:29 AM CST

(Newser) – Long before the claim of the world's first gene-edited babies became public, Chinese researcher He Jiankui shared the news with a US Nobel laureate who objected to the experiment yet remained an adviser to He's biotech company. The revelation that another prominent scientist knew of the work, which was widely condemned when it was revealed, comes as scientists debate whether and how to alert troubling research, and the need for clearer guidelines. Emails obtained by the AP show that Nobel Prize winner Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts learned about the pregnancy last April from He in a message titled "Success!" "I'm glad for you, but I'd rather not be kept in the loop on this," Mello replied. "You are risking the health of the child you are editing ... I just don't see why you are doing this. I wish your patient the best of luck for a healthy pregnancy."

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Mello stayed on as a scientific adviser for He's Direct Genomics company for eight more months, until December, just after news of the births. Several US researchers knew or strongly suspected He was trying embryo gene editing, and his disclosure to Mello in April is notable because it specified the pregnancy had been achieved, and came on the day He himself learned of it. Editing embryos intended for a pregnancy isn't allowed in the US, and many other places, due to the risks and concerns that DNA changes can be passed to future generations. But there's no certain way to stop a rogue scientist from experimenting because the gene-editing technology is cheap and easy to use. A University of Minnesota bioethicist says the lack of action by scientists who learned of He's intentions indicates a broader culture of silence, with "multiple lost opportunities." (More on He Jiankui's troubles.)

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