In this Nov. 28, 2018, file photo, He Jiankui, a Chinese
researcher, speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in
Hong Kong. He has not been seen publicly since January, his work
has not been published and nothing is known about the health of
the GMO babies. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)
Marilynn Marchione, AP
Chinese scientist He
Jiankui shocked the world by claiming he had helped make the
first gene-edited babies. One year later, mystery surrounds his
fate as well as theirs.
Jiankui has not been seen
publicly since January, his work has not been published and
nothing is known about the health of the babies.
“That’s the story — it’s
all cloaked in secrecy, which is not productive for the advance
of understanding,” said Stanford bioethicist Dr. William Hurlbut.
Jiankui talked with Hurlbut
many times before Jiankui revealed at a Hong Kong science
conference that he had used a tool called CRISPR to alter a gene
in embryos to try to help them resist infection with the AIDS
virus. The work, which Jiankui discussed in exclusive interviews
with The Associated Press, was denounced as medically
unnecessary and unethical because of possible harm to other
genes and because the DNA changes can pass to future
Since then, many people
have called for regulations or a moratorium on similar work, but
committees have bogged down over who should set standards and
how to enforce them.
“Nothing has changed,” said
Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania geneticist who
just published a book about gene editing and the CRISPR babies
“I think we’re farther from
governing this” now than a year ago, said Hurlbut, who
disapproves of what Jiankui did. However, so much effort has
focused on demonizing Jiankui that it has distracted from how to
move forward, he said.
Here’s what’s known about
Jiankui was last seen in
early January in Shenzhen, on the balcony of an apartment at his
university, which fired him from its faculty after his work
became known. Armed guards were in the hall, leading to
speculation he was under house arrest.
A few weeks later, China’s
official news agency said an investigation had determined that
Jiankui acted alone out of a desire for fame and would be
punished for any violations of law.
Since then, AP’s efforts to
reach him have been unsuccessful. Ryan Ferrell, a media
relations person Jiankui hired, declined to comment. Ferrell
previously said Jiankui’s wife had started paying him, which
might mean that Jiankui is no longer in a position to do that
Hurlbut, who had been in
touch with Jiankui early this year, declined to say when he last
heard from him.
The Chinese investigation
seemed to confirm the existence of twin girls whose DNA Jiankui
said he altered. The report said the twins and people involved
in a second pregnancy using a gene-edited embryo would be
monitored by government health departments. Nothing has been
revealed about the third baby, which should have been born from
that second pregnancy in late summer.
Chinese officials have
seized the remaining edited embryos and Jiankui’s lab records.
“Jiankui caused unintended
consequences in these twins,” Musunuru said of the gene editing.
“We don’t know if it’s harming the kids.”
Others who were involved
Rice University in Houston
said it is still investigating the role of Michael Deem, whose
name was on a paper Jiankui sent to a journal and who spoke with
the AP about Jiankui’s work. Deem was Jiankui’s adviser when
Jiankui attended Rice years ago.
The AP and others have
reported on additional scientists in the U.S. and China who knew
or strongly suspected what Jiankui was doing.
“Many people knew, many
people encouraged him. Jiankui did not do this in a corner,”
Scientists recently have
found new ways to alter genes that may be safer than CRISPR.
Gene editing also is being tested against diseases in children
and adults, which is not controversial because those changes
don’t pass to future generations. Some scientists think gene
editing will become more widely accepted if it’s proved to work
in those situations.
“It’s moving forward slowly
because it’s being done responsibly,” Musunuru said.
A forum was held in
Berkeley, California, last month to get public views on gene
editing — everything from modifying mosquitoes and crops to
The National Academy of
Sciences recently pulled a video it made after concern arose
about how it portrayed the ethically dicey science and its
possible use to make designer babies. The academy has been
leading some efforts to set standards for gene editing, and it
gets most of its funding from the government, although a private
grant paid for the video, a spokeswoman said.
An AP/NORC poll last year
found that most Americans say it would be OK to use gene-editing
to protect babies against disease, but not to change DNA so
children are born smarter, faster or taller.
A moratorium is no longer
strong enough, and regulation is needed, CRISPR pioneer Jennifer
Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley recently wrote
in a commentary in the journal Science.
She noted that the World
Health Organization has asked regulators in all countries not to
allow such experiments, and that a Russian scientist recently
“The temptation to tinker”
with the DNA of embryos, eggs or sperm “is not going away,” she
undated photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
shows a scanning electron micrograph of multiple round bumps of the
HIV-1 virus on a cell surface. When newborns are infected with HIV, a
new study suggests starting treatment right away is better than waiting
just a few weeks to months. (Cynthia Goldsmith/Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention via AP)
Washington (AP) —
When babies are born with HIV, starting treatment within hours to days
is better than waiting even the few weeks to months that’s the norm in
many countries, researchers reported Wednesday.
The findings, from a small but
unique study in Botswana, could influence care in Africa and other
regions hit hard by the virus. They also might offer a clue in
scientists’ quest for a cure.
The Harvard-led team found super
early treatment limits how HIV takes root in a newborn’s body, shrinking
the “reservoir” of virus that hides out, ready to rebound if those
youngsters ever stop their medications.
“We don’t think the current
intervention is itself curative, but it sets the stage” for future
attempts, said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s
Hospital, who co-authored the study.
Giving pregnant women a cocktail of
anti-HIV drugs can prevent them from spreading the virus to their unborn
children, a step that has dramatically reduced the number of babies born
with the virus worldwide. Still, some 300 to 500 infants are estimated
to be infected every day in sub-Saharan Africa.
Doctors have long known that
treating babies in the first weeks to months of life is important,
because their developing immune systems are especially vulnerable to
HIV. But an infant dubbed the “Mississippi baby” raised a critical
question: Should treatment start even earlier? The girl received a
three-drug combination within 30 hours of her birth in July 2010, highly
unusual for the time. Her family quit treatment when she was a toddler —
yet her HIV remained in remission for a remarkable 27 months before she
relapsed and restarted therapy.
The Botswana study was one of
several funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health after doctors
learned of the Mississippi baby, to further explore very early
The findings are encouraging, said
Dr. Deborah Persaud, a pediatric HIV specialist at Johns Hopkins
University who wasn’t involved with the Botswana study but helped
evaluate the Mississippi baby.
“The study showed what we
hypothesized happened in the Mississippi baby, that very early treatment
really prevents establishment of these long-lived reservoir cells that
currently are the barrier to HIV eradication,” Persaud said.
She cautioned: “Very early
treatment is important, but prevention should still be our top
In Botswana, researchers tested
at-risk newborns, enrolling 40 born with HIV, treating them within hours
to a few days, and tracking them for two years. On Wednesday, they
reported results from the first 10 patients, comparing them with 10
infants getting regular care — treatment beginning when they were a few
Medication brought HIV under
control in both groups. But the children treated earliest had a much
smaller reservoir of HIV in their blood, starting about six months into
treatment, the researchers reported in Science Translational Medicine.
The earliest-treated children also
got another benefit: more normal functioning of some key parts of the
One big question: Did the HIV
reservoir shrink enough to make a long-term difference? To find out,
next year the researchers will give these children experimental
antibodies designed to help keep HIV in check, and test how they fare
with a temporary stop to their anti-HIV drugs.
In the U.S., Europe and South
Africa, it’s becoming common to test at-risk infants at birth. But in
most lower-income countries, babies aren’t tested until they’re 4 to 6
weeks old, said study co-author Dr. Roger Shapiro, a Harvard infectious
Monday, Nov. 11, 2019 photo, University of Washington School of Medicine
researcher Daniel Promislow, the principal investigator of the Dog Aging
Project grant, rubs the head of his elderly dog Frisbee at their home in
Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Carla K. Johnson
Seattle (AP) —
Can old dogs teach us new tricks? Scientists are looking for 10,000 pets for
the largest-ever study of aging in canines. They hope to shed light on human
The project will collect a pile of
pooch data: vet records, DNA samples, gut microbes and information on food
and walks. Five hundred dogs will test a pill that could slow the aging
“What we learn will potentially be good
for dogs and has great potential to translate to human health,” said project
co-director Daniel Promislow of the University of Washington School of
If scientists find a genetic marker for
a type of cancer in dogs, for instance, that could be explored in humans.
For the study, the dogs will live at
home and follow their usual routine. All ages and sizes, purebreds and mutts
Owners will complete periodic online
surveys and take their dogs to the vet once a year, with the possibility of
extra visits for certain tests. Their welfare will be monitored by a
bioethicist and a panel of animal welfare advisers.
To nominate a pet, owners can visit the
Dog Aging Project’s website.
The five-year study was formally
launched Thursday at a science meeting in Austin, Texas. The National
Institute on Aging is paying for the $23 million project because dogs and
humans share the same environment, get the same diseases and dogs’ shorter
lifespans allow quicker research results, said deputy director, Dr. Marie
Bernard. The data collected will be available to all scientists.
Leslie Lambert of Parkville, Maryland,
enrolled her 11-year-old rescue dog, Oscar, in an early phase.
“I would selfishly like to have him
around forever,” said the 33-year-old veterinarian. “Unfortunately, he ages
much, much faster than I do.”
But she’s torn by the prospect of an
anti-aging pill because so many abandoned dogs go without care. “Just
because we can, should we?”
Compared to farm dogs in the past,
today’s pampered pups live longer and get more geriatric diseases, said
veterinarian Dr. Kate Creevy of Texas A&M University, the project’s chief
Yet no standard measures exist for
frailty or prognosis in sick, aged dogs, Creevy said. The project will
develop those tools.
One dog year is roughly equal to seven
human years, Creevy said, but that varies by breed. Large dogs have shorter
lifespans than smaller dogs. A Great Dane’s lifespan is about half that of a
That makes large dogs better test
subjects for the pill. Dogs weighing at least 40 pounds will be eligible for
an experiment with rapamycin, now taken by humans to prevent rejection of
transplanted kidneys. The drug has extended lifespan in mice. A small safety
study in dogs found no dangerous side effects, said project co-director Matt
Kaeberlein of the University of Washington.
Human devotion to dogs drives projects
like this, the scientists said. Owners will gladly fill out surveys, send
records and submit a pup’s poop for analysis if they think it will help all
dogs live longer, even if it won’t help their pet.
“People love dogs,” said Promislow, who
normally studies aging in fruit flies. “No one has ever come up to me and
said, ‘Oh my goodness, I just love fruit flies.’”
Promislow’s mixed breed, 14-year-old
Frisbee, will not participate to prevent a conflict of interest.
“It’s too bad because she’s a terrific
example of a really healthy ager,” he said.