The Associated Press reports that the Nobel laureate and biologist Craig Mello were aware of a pregnancy in China with babies edited by genes for months before the news was public. That a prominent scientist knew about this unethical work but that he chose to remain silent is a serious cause of concern and a sign that the questionable culture about research has to change.
As a report by Candice Choi and Marilynn Marchione for the AP, Mello worked on the scientific advisory board of Direct Genomics, a company of the geneticist He Jiankui, a researcher of the controversial work and possibly genetic gene editing . He, a scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, emailed Mello to the April 2018 that told him the pregnancy. Mello responded with the work's condemnation, but stayed as a science advisor for He's company, who did not participate in the experiment, during the next eight months, only resigned afterwards That the news of the newborns edited by genes would be public, according to the AP. Mello has not yet responded to a Gizmodo request to comment.
During the conference of a human genome in Hong Kong, last November, he admitted to editing the embryo DNA with the editing tool of nothing CRISPR and then implant them into the mother's womb. The twin children were born in early November with an apparent immunity against HIV / AIDS, as a consequence of eliminating the CCR5 gene. A second pregnancy was also revealed by He at the conference. The investigation, although still unconfirmed, was heavily criticized because of the current premature state of the gene editing technology, because the investigation was not considered necessarily medical, and because the effects are unknown to Long-term change, among many other concerns.
As it stands, most countries, including China and the United States, allow researchers to modify the DNA of human embryos, but inducing a pregnancy with modified embryos is strictly verbose. A recent investigation by the Chinese authorities found that, in addition to violating this ban, the laws were broken in search of "personal fame and gain", such as forging certificates of ethics and laboratory work to pretend He was detained by security authorities and will be "severely treated", according to Chinese state media.
The AP obtained emails between Mello and He through a public record request. As the correspondence between the two shows, Mello, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for genetic research, was critical of his work. In an April 2018 email titled "Success!", He wrote to Mello:
Good news! The women [sic] You are pregnant, the success of Genome editing! The embryo with the edited CCR5 gene was transplanted to women 12 days ago, and today pregnancy is confirmed.
What did Mello answer to?
I'm glad for you, but I'd rather not stay up-to-date with that. I believe that this is not a true unmet medical need and, therefore, do not support the use of CRISPR for this indication. You are risking the health of the child you are editing and, in my opinion, there is no significant risk [HIV/AIDS] transmission to the IVF embryo. In fact, the treatment itself is to feed the fear of HIV and a stigma that is not based on any medical fact. I do not see why he does that.
I hope that the patient is lucky enough to have a healthy pregnancy.
Despite his reservations, Mello remained with Direct Genomics-and, apparently, remained silent about his nasty inquiry. Mello rejected the petition for an AP interview, but his university, the Massachusetts Medical School, provided a statement to the AP in which Mello said His conversations with him were "hypothetical and broad" and he did not know that he was capable of editing human genes. According to the AP report:
According to a statement from the University of Mello, Mello approached for a break at a business meeting in November 2017 to discuss the possibility of using the powerful tool for CRISPR gene editing to prevent infection for HIV from parents to children. The statement said that Mello said he had no idea what he was trying to prove himself.
All this, he said, Mello referred to a colleague for advice on "pediatric HIV transmission risks for a therapy he is contemplating," and Mello attended a Direct Genomic Meeting in China One week before the Hong Kong conference, informs the AP.
Obviously, this episode is not good, and emphasizes the obligations of the scientists to speak when evidences arise from non-ethical work. In the AP article, the bioethics of the University of Wisconsin, Alta Charo, who headed the Hong Kong conference, says that "it is not clear" as someone like Mello "could have raised concerns" about the D & # 39; He. This is an absurd affirmation given that a simple tweet, for example, could have alerted the entire world, given the prominent position of Mello in the scientific community. But there are also more formal and discrete channels.
"When you feel like that, you have the duty to report non-ethical conduct," said Arthur Gizmología, Arthur Caplan, bioetic at the NYU School of Medicine. "At the minimum, you should go to the beginning of the researcher's institution, find the dean or your immediate supervisor and express your concerns. Ask them if they are aware of this investigation and if they do have approved ".
Another option, said Caplan, is that the interested scientist warns his group of equals, asking his colleagues if they have heard about this investigation. Together, he said, the group could issue a public letter, detailing what they have learned, explaining the problematic nature of the work and condemning the search. In addition, "the letter should recommend against any presentation of the work and the publication of details in scientific journals," said Caplan. "Definitely, you do not want to give them [the unethical researcher] a platform ".
Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, said that Mello's action shows how a problematic moratorium on the embryo gene's edition can be considered that leading scientists are not prepared to act on a reckless act and a clear ethical violation.
"Inaction and silence suggest a culture of limited ethical concern," Bowman told Gizmodo. "The true research ethics is not just about what individuals do in search of research, but also what they are part of and witness."
Obviously, it is important to give birth to people who have turned aside and who should have known better, but, most importantly, the scientific community has to learn from this incident And forge a culture in which it is not acceptable to remain silent.[Associated Press]