A Chinese scientist has revealed that he helped create the world’s first genetically edited babies.
According to a breaking news tweet from the Associated Press, the doctor revealed that he altered the DNA of twin girls. The Boston Globe reported the researcher, He Jiankui, aka JK, of Shenzhen, used a powerful new tool called the CRISPR-cas9 to alter the babies’ genetics. JK studied in the U.S. at both Rice and Stanford universities before returning to China to start his lab, Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen. U.S. scientist Michael Deem also worked on the project.
Jiankui claimed he altered the genes of embryos for seven couples, and of those, one positive pregnancy test resulted. The altered genetics weren’t for eye color or to prevent a disease that is inherited. Instead, the goal of the move was to help the children who result from the embryos to resist the infection of HIV. Very few people are naturally resistant to the devastating virus.
This type of gene editing research is banned in the U.S. due to ethical concerns, as well as concerns that the DNA changes might harm other genes and pass to the next generation creating unforeseen problems. However, in China, gene editing is not specifically outlawed — only human cloning is illegal there.
For now, the parents have declined identification and have not given interviews. Plus, there’s no independent verification of Jiankui’s stunning claim because he has not attempted to publish it in a journal where the details would be independently vetted.
On Monday, the scientist told organizers of an international conference on gene editing of his accomplishment. The conference is set to begin in Hong Kong on Tuesday.
“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the Associated Press. “Society will decide what to do next.”
Not surprisingly, other scientists around the world spoke out against the research, which is considered by many to be unethical, dangerous, and immoral.
Gene editing expert Dr. Kiran Musunuru, from the University of Pennsylvania, said the research is “unconscionable… an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible.”
Others, like Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, believe that Jiankui’s gene editing is premature considering the magnitude of what he’s dealing with in editing the map that creates a human being.
However, Harvard University’s George Church thinks it’s a good thing to attempt, considering that HIV is a growing threat to public health.
“I think this is justifiable,” Church said.
Recently, the CRISPR-cas9 tool treated adults with deadly diseases, but whatever genetic changes that occur with it cannot be passed through to a new generation. Editing genes in the embryo stage gives such changes the ability to be inherited.
Although both embryos were used in the pregnancy attempt, only one was successfully edited with the genes needed to resist HIV infection.