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China's human genome 'edit' causes furor

April 24, 2015

Scientists around the world have asked to halt experiments on the human DNA after a Chinese team published results of its new experiment. The experiment could have unintended effects on future generations.

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Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Controversial research by Chinese scientists stirred up a storm among scientists, who demanded that attempts to edit the human genome be halted around the world.

Details about the experiment, conducted by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher in Sun Yat Sen University in China's Guanzhou city, were published in the journal Protein and Cell, the Nature News website reported.

In the paper, Junjiu described how his team changed the genomes or the genetic material of embryos obtained from a fertility clinic. "The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for beta-thalassemia, a potentially fatal disorder, using a gene technique known as CRISPR/Cas9," Nature News wrote.

The CRISPR/Cas9 technique is a method by which scientists introduce enzymes that bind with a gene associated with a disease and then replace or repair it. Scientists warn that altering DNA could produce unintended effects for future generations.

Junjiu's experimental embryos also experienced many unintended mutations that arose during the gene "editing" process. "If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100 percent… That's why we stopped," Junjiu said.

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Scientists have called for a moratorium on germline DNA researchImage: AP/RBM ONLINE/LIFE SCIENCE CENTER

Scientists call for halting study

Researchers at the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine called to stop such controversial experiments. "Given the significant safety and ethical implications of modifying the DNA of human reproductive (germline) cells, this research is highly premature," the Alliance said in a statement to the AFP news agency.

Scientists distinguish so-called germline engineering from medical technology which uses DNA from non-reproductive cells to repair diseased genes and is less wrought with ethical problems.

Edward Lanphier of Sangmo Biosciences, a company working with gene editing in California, said he is afraid that research companies are ignoring the international moratorium on editing the human germline. "This is the first of what may be many papers," Lanphier said, referring to dozens of experiments, to change breast cancer cells for example, that are being undertaken around the world.

Public interest groups such as Genetics and Society have also called for a stop to experimentation with humans.

The International Society of Stem Cell Research has also said it was too early "to apply these technologies to the human germ line, the inherited DNA, in a clinical setting" and that any research involving the use of human embryos and reproductive cells would have to be undertaken in accordance with strict ethical guidelines.

mg/sms (AFP, Reuters)