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Chinese scientist claims to have created ‘world’s first gene edited babies’

A group of Chinese scientist claims to have created ‘world’s first gene edited babies’ using the CRISPR gene editing tool. According to the MIT Technology Review, previous experiments had sought to make children immune to the HIV virus, smallpox and cholera. If true, it would be a profound leap in science and ethics.

The name of the researcher is He Jiankui, from Shenzhen and he has assured that he modified the embryos of seven couples during the fertility treatments, and until now a pregnancy was successful. He said that his goal was not to cure or prevent a hereditary disease, but to try to give a trait that few people have naturally: a gene called CCR5, which gives the ability to resist a possible future infection to the HIV virus.

Chinese scientist claims to have created 'world's first genetically edited babies'

Jiankui said the parents involved refused to be identified or interviewed, and he did not say where they live or where the work was done. “I feel a great responsibility that it’s not just a first time, but also an example,” he told the AP. “The society will decide what to do next,” he added, implying that it will be up to the authorities to allow or prohibit this type of experiment.

 

It should be noted that there is no independent confirmation of the study so far, and it has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal (although two documents have been published online: here and here ). The researcher has made the disclosure in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that will begin on Tuesday.

The American scientist Michael Deem, professor of physics and bioengineering, claims to have participated in the experiments. As is known, this type of genetic editing is prohibited in the United States because changes in DNA can be passed on to subsequent generations and could damage other genes. 

The experiment

According to what AP collected, Jiankui recruited couples through a Beijing-based AIDS advocacy group called Baihualin. Their leader, known by the pseudonym “Bai Hua,” said it is not uncommon for people with HIV to lose their jobs or have problems getting medical attention if their infections are revealed. Couples accepted because of the promise of having an opportunity to have a child without the virus.

The edition of the gene occurred during in vitro fertilization  (IVF). First, the sperm was “washed” to separate it from the semen, the fluid where HIV may be present. A single sperm was placed in a single ovule to create an embryo. Then the gene editing tool was added.

First gene-edited babies claimed in China
(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

When the embryos were 3 to 5 days old, some cells were removed and their editing was verified. The couples could choose whether or not to use edited embryos for pregnancy attempts. In all, 16 of the 22 embryos were edited and 11 embryos were used in 6 implant attempts before the twin pregnancy was achieved, the Chinese scientist said.

The evidence suggests that one twin had both copies of the desired gene-altered and the other twin only one altered, with no evidence of damage to other genes. People with a copy of the gene can still get HIV, although some very limited research suggests that their health may decrease more slowly once they do.

Chinese scientist claims to have created 'world's first gene edited babies'

Extremely controversial

The birth of the first genetically engineered humans would be a surprising medical achievement. But also controversial. Because although it would eliminate genetic diseases, it could also be used to design humans and establish a new form of eugenics. 

Fyodor Urnov, associate director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences, Seattle (USA) reviewed the Chinese papers and said that, although incomplete, they show that “this effort aims to produce a human being” with modified genes. He said he was “worried about the fact that genetic editing, a powerful and useful technique, has been used in an environment where it was not necessary.”

For his part, Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Translational Research Institute in California, said it was “far too premature.” “We are dealing with the operating instructions of a human being, it is very important,” he added.

However, George Church, the famous geneticist at Harvard University, defended an attempt at genetic editing for HIV, a virus he called “a major and growing threat to public health.” “I think this is justifiable,” Church added.

In spite of everything, Jiankui believes he has done the right thing and is willing to assume his responsibility. “I think this is going to help families and their children,” he said. If it causes unwanted side effects or damage, “I would feel the same pain as them and it will be my responsibility”.

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