January 29, 2019

AP: UMass Nobelist learned of gene-edited babies last April

Courtesy | UMass Medical School
Craig Mello

A UMass Medical School professor and Nobel Prize winner knew of a Chinese researcher's work on gene-edited babies before that work became public, according to the Associated Press.

Craig Mello, a 2006 Nobel Prize winner and distinguished professor of the school's RNA Therapeutics Institute, learned about the pregnancy last April via an email from researcher He Jiankui.

In emails obtained by the Associated Press via a public records request, Mello expressed concern about the work.

"I'm glad for you, but I'd rather not be kept in the loop on this," Mello replied. "You are risking the health of the child you are editing ... I just don't see why you are doing this. I wish your patient the best of luck for a healthy pregnancy."

However, Mello stayed on as a scientific adviser for He's company, Direct Genomics, for eight months until the work became public in December after the babies were born.

According to the AP, the Chinese scientist's gene-editing work was not a company experiment. He tried to alter the genes of twin girls to help them resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.

Editing embryos for a pregnancy is not allowed in the U.S. and many other countries due to the risk of harming other genes and concerns about DNA changes becoming hereditary.

In statements provided through UMass to the AP, Mello said he had no idea He was personally interested in human gene editing or had the resources to accomplish the feat. Mello said he disapproved of He's project and resigned from Direct Genomics' board.

Mello also serves as chair of the scientific advisory board at Marlborough-based RXi Pharmaceuticals. The company did not immediately return a request for comment.

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