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Chinese Biophysicist Given Jail Time For Genetically Modifying Babies

There continues to be much debate over whether genetically modified embryos should be an acceptable practice in society and the viewpoints vary radically between countries, communities and cultures. Just last month, China handed down a prison sentence and fines to biophysicist He Jiankui and two of his colleagues after he was found guilty of illegal medical practices and jailed for three years. This followed his public announcement in December 2019 that he had, with the help of two embryologists, “created the world’s first gene-edited babies.” His claims attracted much negative attention and led to his prosecution at a Shenzhen court in December.

This case has led some scientists and ethicists to question the Chinese legal process for “lacking appropriate information about altered children.” It has been noted that China is lagging behind some other countries with regards to its views on genetic modification and there is much positive exploratory work taking place in the area of genetic modification which aims to tackle some of the most challenging genetically-related health issues affecting humans. But this work remains exploratory in nature as the future implications of altering genes in humans are unchartered territory and as such, are approached with caution, even by the most experienced of geneticists.

The courts revealed that Jiankui and his team, who also received lesser sentences, did not have the appropriate certifications to practice medicine and state news agency, Xinhua said, “in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment. They’ve crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics.”

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Jiankui stated that his motivations behind his actions were driven by his interest in tackling HIV. The modified genes were designed to promote the resistance of HIV in the descendents of the babies and he sought out couples where only the father was infected with HIV, with the mother being clear. The couples were offered IVF in return for taking part.

He was extremely public about this work, speaking about his aspirations at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, China. He explained that he was committed to sparing future babies from becoming infected with HIV later in their lives. He had a vision that this could be used to reduce the prevalence of HIV and AIDS in much of Africa, where there is often intense discrimination of those inflicted with the disease.

That said, many remain skeptical and have accused him undertaking the work for his own fame than for the good of future humanity. It has also been highlighted that it was the way in which the accused had conducted the process which was worthy of the harsh sentence it attracted. It has been stated that the trio forged ethical review documents and knowingly misled the doctors responsible for implanting the gene-edited embryos into two women, resulting in the birth of twins for one of the mothers. It was these actions which the court deemed were “a direct and deliberate violation of national regulations on biomedical research and medical ethics.”

In addition, medical experts have also questioned the validity of Jiankui’s rationale, arguing that there are much more effective ways of preventing HIV infections and that his approach simply put babies at risk of the gene editing process, providing them with little benefit in return.

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They have also indicated that similar punishments would have been likely if he had carried out the same practices elsewhere, such as in the UK for example. Furthermore, it has been duly noted that stringent punishments do need to be in place in order to prevent the risks of rogue scientists taking matters into their own hands and making genetic modifications which could have long-standing consequences for the affected babies and even their future generations.

Indeed, questions have been raised over the future development of the children affected by Jiankui’s work is yet to be seen, and there is no doubt that the children born through this work, including a set of twins, are likely to be monitored in the coming years.

On this topic, Fyodor Urnov, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, told MIT Technology Review that although Jiankui had tried to recreate the CCR5 mutation already present in some human and leads to an immunity to HIV, he had in fact “created new mutations in the target gene, and apparently elsewhere in the genome, too, the consequences of which are unknown.”

What is clear is that the general consensus is that Jiankui acted prematurely and that work of this kind required far more research and preparation before it was ever practiced on human embryos. Further work needs to be conducted in the areas of standards, regulatory pathways and appropriate means of governance and these issues are being considered by the Academies Commission and by a WHO committee, who will return their findings later this year.

Vaccine

An HIV Vaccine Could Be Available As Soon As 2021

HIV is a devastating illness that affects millions of people worldwide and in many cases leads to AIDS, which is often deadly. HIV attacks the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight other infections, and as the immune system deteriorates, infections that would ordinarily lead to temporary, minor illnesses can kill. Currently, no cure for HIV exists. In recent years, however, medicines have been developed to fight HIV infection and reduce the risk of infecting others, allowing people with the disease to live long and fulfilling lives. In the past, many devastating illnesses such as smallpox have been all but eradicated thanks to the development of vaccines, which work by stimulating the body’s immune system to create antibodies to kill viruses. Now, scientists have made tremendous progress in developing a vaccine for HIV, according to reports from Forbes and The Sun.

It should be noted, however, that this is not the first time that claims of the imminent development of an HIV vaccine have been reported. As early as 1984, government officials have predicted that a vaccine would be developed within a few years. This prediction turned out to be far from accurate, as many speculated that exposure to the experimental vaccine in question actually increased patients’ chances of being infected with HIV. Because HIV is a disease that works by attacking the immune system, attempts to develop a vaccine have failed as the virus effectively prevents the body from developing antibodies, which are necessary for fighting viral infections. This fact has made research on the development of an HIV vaccine both slow and dangerous, as researchers have had to grapple with the possibility that their experimental treatments were doing more harm than good.

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As such, an atmosphere of pessimism has clouded research on the development of an HIV vaccine for more than thirty years. But recent developments have provided hope that a safe, effective vaccine for HIV is possible, inspiring belief that the disease could be essentially eradicated like the many devastating viruses that have preceded it. Currently, there are three different late-stage human clinical trials underway for HIV vaccine candidates, and any one of these experimental treatments has the potential to one day be deployed on a massive scale, reducing incidences of infection by a substantial margin.

The first trial, called the HVTN 702 Trial, began in October 2016 and involves two intramuscular injections. These injections contain a genetically-modified variant of the canarypox vaccine which contains pieces of HIV that, while unable to cause infection on their own, could allow the immune system to develop antibodies to fight against the real virus. The trial, which is being conducted in South Africa, an area of the world strongly impacted by the AIDS epidemic, is scheduled to conclude in July 2021.

The second trial, called the HPX2008/ HVTN 705 or Imbokodo Study, uses a similar approach as the previous method, as treatment consists of two injections. However, the ingredients are different; this experimental vaccine includes a re-engineered form of the common cold with inert pieces of HIV attached. Like the previous trial, this trial is being conducted in southern Africa, and includes thousands of participants, all of whom are women. It’s expected to conclude in February of 2022.

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The third trial is the HPX3002/HVTN 706 or Mosaico Trial, and is being conducted in various countries around the world, including locations in North America, South America, and Europe. This trial just began in July of this year and is hoped to enroll 3,800 participants. The Mosaico Trial uses the same experimental vaccine as the Imbokodo Study, but aims to include a more diverse range of participants, including men between 18 and 60 years old as well as transgender people.

Perhaps the trial that shows the most promise is the HVTN 702 trial, as it is based on a vaccine that has shown moderate success in reducing HIV infection in the past. In 2009, a study featuring a similar vaccine reduced infections by roughly 30%, marking substantial progress but not a protection level high enough for general use. As the vaccine developed for the HVTN 702 trial seeks to address the shortcomings of the previous vaccine, many are hopeful that this updated version will offer a protection level great enough to warrant widespread deployment.

Developing a vaccine for HIV has proven to be enormously challenging, and while research on the illness has progressed significantly, the virus has proven to be extraordinarily resilient. As such, while optimism is warranted by the multiple ongoing trials, expectations that a vaccine will be available by 2021 should be tempered, despite the prevalence of such predictions throughout the news media. That being said, the development of an HIV vaccine would surely revolutionize the state of global health, and as such, these trials are surely worth paying attention to as they progress and eventually conclude.