‘World’s first gene-edited babies’ creates uproar
A Chinese scientist has caused worldwide outrage after claiming to have created the world’s first genetically engineered babies. Jiankui He, the scientist in question, has allegedly used gene-editing, which is banned in most countries including China, to alter twin girls in order to give them resistance to HIV.
The process is banned due to the unknown and potentially catastrophic consequences it could cause, not just in the individual but in future generations too. He is, as such, being investigated by the Chinese government and is living under armed guard.
Many scientists think gene-editing is too unsafe to even try, and hundreds of Chinese scientists signed a letter on social media condemning the research, saying they were “resolutely” opposed to it. Their outrage is supported by western scientists, among them Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, who described the experiment as ‘monstrous’. He could be facing a death sentence for his actions.
Gene-editing for no tangible reason
Gene editing is a technique that can result in off-target mutations that can themselves cause genetic problems early and later in life, including cancer. He’s experiment exposes healthy children to a risk that would provide no benefit, since there are many ways to both prevent and treat HIV in healthy individuals.
Dr Sarah Chan, a bioethicist at the University of Edinburgh, said that He’s claim was “of grave ethical concern”.
“Whether or not the veracity of these reports is eventually borne out, making such claims in a way that seems deliberately designed to provoke maximum controversy and shock value is irresponsible and unethical. The lifetime risk of contracting HIV is extremely low in the first place,” she said.
He, a researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said he genetically altered embryos for seven couples – all HIV-positive men and HIV-negative women – during IVF treatment, resulting in one pregnancy and the birth of twin girls.
He used a tool called CRISPR, which was discovered in 2012 and allows scientists to cut out or replace specific genes. HIV enters and infects cells by binding to a protein called CCR5, so He’s team used CRISPR to try to disable the gene for CCR5.
He said that both copies of the gene were altered in one twin, that in the other, only one copy was altered, and that there was no evidence of damage to other genes.
But as Kiran Musunuru, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out, people without CCR5 genes are at higher risk of contracting certain other viruses, such as West Nile, and of dying from flu.
There has been no independent confirmation of He’s claim and it has not been published in a scientific journal, where it would be scrutinised by other experts. He said the study had been submitted to a journal for review, but did not say which one. The university at which the scientist is based, meanwhile, said it was unaware of He’s research, but that it would be investigating his claims. They also stated that He had been on unpaid leave since February.
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