World’s first gene-edited babies: Chinese scientist’s claim panned by peers

Updated on Nov 26, 2018 06:43 PM IST

In a rare move, a group of 122 leading scientists from China condemned “gene editing”, saying there was a huge risk to perform human embryo transformation and attempt to produce a baby before rigorous further testing.

He Jiankui speaks during an interview at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province.(AP)
He Jiankui speaks during an interview at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province.(AP)
Hindustan Times, Beijing | BySutirtho Patranobis, Beijing

A Chinese scientist’s claim that he helped make the world’s first “genetically-edited” babies, a pair of twin girls, who could be resistant to HIV and other diseases, has triggered controversy, with a group of 122 leading scientists from his country, in a rare move, condemning “gene editing”.

While it is considered a leap for science being both daring and dangerous, reports quoted scientists and experts as saying that if true, the experiment raises deep ethical questions — as in the 1997 science-fiction movie, Gattaca.

First reported by the MIT Technology Review and the Associated Press (AP), the reports say that scientist He Jiankui from the Southern Univesity of Science and Technology in Shenzhen in south China claimed to have altered the embryos for seven couples.

One pregnancy resulted from the experiment, according to He’s claims.

“According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month, a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera,” the MIT Technology Review said in a report earlier on Monday.

Also read: India should take the lead on the gene editing debate

Within hours of being reported, the 122 scientists released a statement on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) questioning the ethics and the potential pitfalls of tinkering with human genes.

“Direct human experimentation can only be described as madness. The accuracy of the CRISPR gene editing technology and the off-target effects it brings are very controversial within the scientific community. There is a huge risk in any attempt to directly perform human embryo transformation and attempt to produce a baby before rigorous further testing,” the scientists said.

He Jiankui told Associated Press his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, “but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus”.

“There is no independent confirmation of He’s claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. He revealed it on Monday in Hong Kong to one of the organisers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin on Tuesday,” the AP report said.

If the claims are proved to be true, it will deepen the ongoing debate on genetic modification.

“The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine that eliminates genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics,” the MIT report said.

A large group of Chinese scientists agreed about the risks.

It’s not the first time that Chinese scientists have claimed a breakthrough in modifying genes in embryos.

In 2016, researchers from the Guangzhou Medical University in south China used “…a gene editing technique named CRISPR/Cas to replace the CCR5 gene in 26 human embryos with an HIV-resistant mutation. Only four embryos were successfully edited, while the other 22 cases failed to produce the desired results.”

The research was reported in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics.

“In this study, we demonstrated that the HIV-resistant mutation could be introduced into early human embryos through the CRISPR system,” Fan Yong, a researcher of the Guangzhou Medical University and an author of the paper, told the state-controlled China Daily newspaper.

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