By Grant Jacobs 28/11/2018

Time moves on; this story has too. Readers might like to try my more recent piece, Genome-edited babies – what’s the worry?, which covers the biological aspects of what was done.

For those following the news that a Hong Kong-based researcher claims to have brought to term human gene-edited babies: hold the horses.

I’ve been trying to put a story on this together. I see cracks in the story and now some extraordinary claims made online from sources that at least deserve consideration.

Something doesn’t look right, likely a lot of things.

A retrospective approval?

Like a few others I noted that the English-language clinical trial approval is retrospective. That form is dated as being registered on 11-November-2018, and refreshed on the 26th November.

The accompanying Chinese-language paper form (which I can’t read) is dated 7th March 2017 (or possibly 3rd July 2017), a year and a half earlier. At the top of the Chinese-language form is March 2017 — March 2019, which might be the trial period – ?

The clinical trial filing being retrospective might at kindest be ‘curious’, but further reports offer much stranger claims.

More odd claims

There are claims (great work, do read their account) that:

  • the researcher has been on leave without pay since February
  • he has no genetics or human health experience, and others thought he was working on DNA sequencing technology
  • the applicant for the clinical trial is a veterinarian researcher who works on animal breeding
  • the hospital denies the babies were born at the hospital; they also deny knowing the researcher
  • the ethics committee deny having signed the approval form

Among the tweets they cite is this from Dr Ellis a synthetic biology and genomics researcher at Imperial College, London. (His twitter profiles says he’s “Bilingual in English and DNA.”) –

And… well I’ll stop there.

Hold the horses, sit it out

There is likely to be more to this. Let the details emerge. As I once wrote about other stories,

If it’s hot, wait. This one applies to all science stories: if something is hot of the presses, wait. Hold up for a bit. It’s what scientists do, too. There’s no rush with science, right? If a newspaper writes that some researchers have ‘just reported’ or ‘just announced’ some bold new claim – set it aside for several days (at least) and wait to hear what other scientists have to say about it. The judgement of research isn’t (just) in the peer review that accepts a piece of research for publication, but in the wider review by scientists after it is published. ‘Hot’ stories in the media get in before that.

If it gets attention in media and there look to be concerns about the science, it’s common for ‘corrective’ stories to appear fairly quickly. They are mostly found at science writing forums like this one, not where the original stories are.

Yes, we’re doing this again. Who knows what the story is at this stage.

You could always read some of my older articles instead – a few are listed below under Other articles at Code for life. Some fun, some more serious. Or just browse around Sciblogs.


If you need a little more aside from that the therapy idea doesn’t make sense, Chinese researchers say on a Chinese website that it’s illegal in China,

The Ethical Guiding Principles for the Research of Human Embryonic Stem Cell which was published by the Chinese government in 2003 states that scientists are allowed to conduct genetic editing to human embryos only for research purposes, but the time for their in-vitro breeding shall not exceed 14 days from the date of fertilization or nucleus transplant.

“We don’t know if this work is real or fake. If it’s real, then this is certainly banned in China.” Xu Nanping, Vice Minister of MOST, said in an event held by the State Council Information Office of China on Tuesday.

Other articles at Code for life

The sheep-leaf nudibranch

Finding platypus venom

Public opinion on gene editing and enhancement

Human gene editing recommendation from USA science panel

Haemophilia — towards a cure using genetic engineering

Epigenetics and the Holocaust

Kumara are transgenic 

Initial reports are not a done deal

About the featured image

Originally from ShutterStock, royalty-free images; sourced from The Conversation.

0 Responses to “Human gene-edited babies: hold the horses”

  • Nice take, Grant. Like you, I’m concerned about the rush to accept this at face value. I’ve shared your post on the SGU, where their item (basically just a share of the story) is atteacting a lot of surprisingly uncritical comment.

  • I wrote the little note above in the wee hours, ending at 2am. Hopefully I can be forgiven for not giving a more complete explanation. I’m not going to try that here either, but I will add a few further points that might help readers.

    While spending a few hours gathering material for a story on this, I realised that the ‘quirks’ were beginning to pile up and was getting a feeling that things weren’t stacking up, that it wasn’t a straight-forward case of a research group doing this in an institution with the usual stuff that goes with it.

    Then I ran into Leonid Schneider’s post, and decided to abandon taking it further for now. For one things they’d picked up some of the leads I had and gone a long way further. There was just too much that wasn’t adding up. Is this just straight fraud? Is it a ‘hidden’ gene therapy shot-at-fame effort.?A mix of both, with fraudulent approvals but real deeds done? Who knows what it is, but it looks a mess. (Do read their piece, they give a good sense of the mess I was picking up.)

    Being announced on the eve of a conference intended to take further how people who go forward with gene editing technologies can’t be a coincidence.

    I’m a bit disappointed that these leads are not being quickly picked up in other reports since I wrote the piece above. It’s too early to say, but it’s almost as if the mainstream media, having gotten up a head of steam on it’s chosen narrative, wants to keep plunging on along the lines of “It’s been done, now what do we do?” A slower and more investigative approach might help.

    There are real technical challenges in gene-editing human embryos. Some of the early efforts were outright challenged as to if they even actually happened as though. And then there are concerns over off-target effects.

    As widely noted the proposed therapy for HIV doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s hard to see an sound ethics group approving assuming it were allowed to let embryos develop to term (that’s illegal in China as my footnote notes). It would be ‘elective’ “gene surgery” for something that doesn’t actually put the child at high risk, and there are other ways to cover this. A key point of the moratorium on gene editing embryos is that when it does get to be used ought to be limited to life threatening conditions that have no other real options. This just isn’t that. It’s effectively elective ‘gene surgery’.

    Also there’s the simple thing that extraordinary claims want extraordinary evidence, but what we have is an announcement with, apparently, no evidence at all. (To software and hardware developers the term ‘vapourware’ might come to mind.)

    Good scientists when putting out challenging work sit down and work out what the possible objections might be and try test these carefully, hoping to address the potential objections before they happen as it were. The effect is to challenge their own work to see if it stands up, if what they think was done in fact was.

    ‘Empty’ announcements should be taken with a lot of caution. An exception might be if others can stand up along with it, but in general today people would ask for “the evidence please”. A classic example from history would be the announcement of the model of DNA structure. The side-by-side announcement papers in Nature were basically just that, announcements with little evidence backing them, with the interesting exception of Franklin who was able to present at least a little data, but their announcement was very clearly supported by a wide cast of people and their institutions. That’s not the case here. This looks like a lone individual or very small group with no corroborating support, and in fact now with repeated claims that people on the ground don’t know them or the project.

    A lot if people are angry with this announcement, for various reasons. More on this later perhaps. In my case on top of the obvious problems, there’s that I’ve spent hours trying to build up material only to develop this unease that all is not what it seems!

    More some other time then. I’m stopping here for a bit, partly as I’m disappointed that these aspects are not being taken up in the way I might have expected or hoped.

    • @Siouxie: Yeah, I figured it out later! Typed ‘Skeptic’ into Facebook’s search box; the search completion options included that about six options down and I guessed that was what Alison meant! 🙂

  • I’ll try get some follow-on piece up. I had hoped to yesterday, but was too tired.

    The researcher has spoken at the gene editing summit conference in Hong Kong. Transcripts and slide of the talk are available. I could try make a condensed summary for non-scientists, along with some of the questions and feedback – and perhaps my own opinions! In fact, almost certainly my own opinions.

    I have to admit I’d love to know how many people would be interested, as it’s a lot of work. In reality of course I’ll just have to write… Sounds a bit like something writer Elizabeth Knox tweeted earlier today. (I need a magazine to be paying me to investigate all this, really.) Anyway, I’ll see how I get on.