A Chinese scientist claims he has been able to “edit” the genes of human embryos to create twin girls.
This claim is unprecedented and, so far, unconfirmed. He Jiankui is with the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. He says he used a technique known as CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, to make the modifications.
What was the purpose of the genetic changes? To prevent HIV—the children’s father carries the virus. The team used the parents’ sperm and eggs to create the embryos. He explains in a video, “When Lulu and Nana were just a single cell, this surgery removed a doorway through which HIV enter to infect people.”
He’s actions are controversial, first, because the results have not been peer-reviewed. Second, no one has created babies with gene-editing technology before. If He’s claims are true, it would be a “historic” event, says NPR, similar to the first baby born through in-vitro fertilization in 1978.
There is also the question of whether the scientist broke any laws. A local medical ethics board is evaluating the situation to determine whether this is the case. He’s university says in a statement it is “deeply shocked” by the news and has put him on unpaid leave.
The Scientific Community Is Not Happy
He’s fellow scientists reacted with similar dismay when he addressed them about his research at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong.
NPR describes the response of the conference attendees as “skeptical” and “incensed.”
In an interview, biochemist Jennifer Doudna said,
“This work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing… All of us that are here at this conference are struggling to figure out what was done and also whether the process was done properly. We just don’t know yet.”
Noting that there are other ways to prevent HIV infection, Doudna questioned why the team of scientists decided to tackle the virus through gene modification.
Conference attendee Alta Charo, who is a bioethicist, stated that the babies were at a minimal risk of contracting HIV because it was the father who carried the virus. She describes He’s actions as pointless and off-track and says that the parents were given misinformation about the experiment.