Scientist's claim of gene-edited babies creates uproar

First gene-edited babies claimed in China

First gene-edited babies claimed in China

Scientists across the world reacted with horror today after a Chinese researcher claimed to have created the world's first genetically edited babies, a feat that would crash through the most controversial ethical boundary in biology.

Prof He Jiankui announced this week that he had helped to edit a pair of twins' DNA as embryos to ensure that they could not contract HIV. News of the research was first reported by the Associated Press.

He claims to have altered the twins' DNA while they were embryos.

"We advocate the establishment of a global observatory for gene editing, as a crucial step to determining how the potential of science can be better steered by the values and priorities of society", wrote Sheila Jasanoff and J. Benjamin Hurlbut in Nature. Their father is HIV-positive. In the USA, a gene-editing expert at the University of Pennsylvania told The Associated Press that it was "an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible", while a Harvard University geneticist said the research is "justifiable".

The U.S. scientist who worked with him on this project after He returned to China was physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem, who was his adviser at Rice in Houston.

The MIT Technology Review warns that "the technology is ethically charged because changes to an embryo would be inherited by future generations and could eventually affect the entire gene pool".

Top of the list is the fact that He hasn't published his work in a scientific journal, which means it lacks any kind of independent confirmation.

The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing begins in Hong Kong on Tuesday, Nov. 27, and He is expected to make an appearance at the event.

Nevertheless, other scientists questioned whether the editing really worked, and argue that it is far too soon for the team to try the experiment.

The particular method used is common in lab research but not precise or controlled enough for embryos, said Columbia University cell biologist Dietrich Egli, who called it "essentially genome vandalism".

Kiran Musunuru is a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

The Chinese government has ordered an "immediate investigation" into the alleged delivery of the world's first genetically edited babies, as experts worldwide have voiced outrage at such use of the technology. "It's simply too early and too premature". "It's a big deal".

CRISPR has the ability to remove certain negative gene mutations, but can potentially cause harmful off-target gene mutations as a side effect.

"I believe this is going to help the families and their children", said Mr He.

It's only recently been tried in adults to treat deadly diseases, and the changes are confined to that person. It forms something of a protein doorway which allows HIV to enter a cell, eventually reproduces rapidly and take over the immune system. First, the sperm cells were "washed" to separate them from semen, this is where HIV could possibly be found. Also, some so-called mitochondrial disorders can be addressed by using some genetic material from mom and some from a donor egg, along with dad's sperm. At 3-5 days old, the embryos were checked for editing.

Couples chose whether they wanted to try to get pregnant with edited or unedited embryos. Eleven edited embryos were then used in six implant attempts before one of the couples were able to achieve the twin pregnancy, He said.

Tests suggest that one of the twins, born this month, had both copies of the intended gene altered and the other twin had just one altered, with no evidence of harm to other genes, Mr He said.

"No gene was changed except the one to prevent HIV infection", He says.

He told the AP that he had practiced on mice, monkeys, and human embryos for years before experimenting on humans.

He recruited couples through a Beijing-based AIDS advocacy group called Baihualin.

Tim Caulfield, a professor of health and law at the University of Alberta, said he believes there is "an emerging global consensus that this research should progress" but added that "we're not at the state right now where we want to be using this technology in the clinic".

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