Chinese Scientist Claims to Have Created World’s First Genetically Alter Babies
Earlier this week, a Chinese scientist announced he had created the world’s first genetically engineered babies using the gene editing tool CRISPR. The researcher, He Jiankui, claimed to have altered a gene in the embryos before implanting them in the mother’s womb. The babies in question were born as twin girls earlier this month.
Jiankui’s goal behind gene editing was to develop a resistance to HIV/AIDS. The father of the twins had HIV while the mother did not; both parents declined to be interviewed or identified. Jiankui has not disclosed any information on their whereabouts or where the procedure took place, but told the Associated Press that he recruited the couple through a Beijing-based AIDS advocacy group called Baihualin.
No independent confirmation has been presented to the validity of his work, nor has it been published in a journal where it could be verified by other experts. However, his work is well known by other experts in the field, making some believe it is entirely plausible. Jiankui told the Associated Press in an interview, “I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” adding “Society will decide what to do next.”
His peers are certainly making an example out of it, strongly condemning his work. Dr. Kiran Musunuru, gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal called the work “..unconscionable… an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible.”
The United States has stringent rules on deliberately modifying the genes of human embryos, and while it is not against the law in China, the practice is strongly opposed by the majority of researchers. 122 Chinese researchers even issued a statement calling Jiankui’s work “crazy” and his claims “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”
The Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, where Jiankui operates a lab, has said the work is a serious violation of its academic ethics and standards and plans to launch an investigation. Gene editing using CRISPR has been successful in treating adults for deadly diseases, though the changes are confined to that single person. With embryo’s, those changes can be inherited through future offspring, which poses a variety of ethical issues.