Chinese Scientist Claims to Have Created the First Genetically-Modified Babies

Chinese researcher He Jiankui shocked the world this week with an announcement on YouTube that he’d successfully edited human embryos to reduce their susceptibility to HIV — and implanted them,resulting in asuccessful twin pregnancy.

The scientific community is scrambling to verifyHe’sdeclaration, and bioethicists are sounding alarms. If the claim is accurate, it could be a watershed moment in human reproductive history — akin to the announcement of the first “test tube baby,” Louise Brown, in 1978.

A great deal of information — and speculation — is swirling around this story. BecauseHe’s resultshaven’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal, it’s hard to get an unbiased look at the specifics — though MIT Technology Review reported on some of the work around this research.

The lab claims to have used technology known as CRISPR to confer genetic resistance to HIV; the twin girls’ father is HIV+. Other scientists note that it’s possible for HIV+ men to donate sperm that can be “washed” and safely used in IVF, without the need for gene editing.

While gene editing sounds pretty wild to the general public, labs have been doing it for a very long time — and not just to plants.

An assortment of lab animals, especially mice, have been subjected to a variety of genetic research, andscientists are getting very good at the procedure –especially when it comes to “knockout” research where specific genes are targeted for deactivation, as in this case.

Researchers have also exploredgenetic editing in human embryos– somethingHediscussed in 2017 — though none of those embryos have been implanted.

One reason for that is widespread concernamong the public, bioethicists and some scientists about the potentials of gene editing; setting aside questions about whether it’s safe,the process has some serious ethical implications.

Questions of safety are extremely valid,andresearchers have strongly urged that this processtake placeslowly in controlled, replicable conditions that can be carefully studied.

WithHe’s announcement, the baby is out of the bag, so to speak. But there are some complicated caveats here.

One is the fact that he’s in academic disgrace: The Chinese university whereHe taught hasput him on leavein February without pay, and employees from the hospital named in his ethics disclosures say they have no knowledge of his research.

Healso chairs a DNA sequencing company that stands to win big with this kind of research, which is another strike against characterizing him as an impartial researcher purely interested in the common good.

Bioethicists from around the world were quick to comment on this case. The Center for Genetics and Society called it a “grave abuse of human rights,” and others characterized it as dangerous, monstrousand other choice adjectives. The scientific community is worried about the safety implications of gene editing, but also about the social ones: What would it mean to live in a world, for example, where babies of wealthy parents could be preemptively proofed against things like HIV?

As coverage of the case unfolds, it’s important to view it with a grain of salt. It wouldn’t be the first time researchers have faked shocking studies, and it’s clear that the scientific community needs more data about He’s methods and practices. It’s also important to note that this research would be illegal in almost any other country in the world. In fact,He’s claim has triggered the opening of anethics investigation.

This situation also clearly illustrates that regulation may be lagging behind scientific advancements, and an evidence-based update to regulations surrounding this kind of research is vitally needed.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

47 comments

Beverly D
Beverly D2 days ago

Thanks, I guess... God bless~

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Clare O
Clare O'Beara10 days ago

This is going to happen. You may not know about it. Wealthy people already have bigger, stronger, taller smarter (in some cases) offspring because these people never knew starvation, cold and overwork. Their children have an advantage in the genes and in the womb and in the home and in the school and walk into college and walk into business life. I don't blame the parents. Who would not want the best for their kids? But it shows that the inequalities are going to become more pronounced.

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Clare O
Clare O'Beara10 days ago

Well, suppose every baby in the world could be helped to be resistant to HIV with a drop on a lump of sugar, like polio, would you be against it then?

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Clare O
Clare O'Beara10 days ago

Commenter - He is the scientist's name.

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Marguerite C
Marguerite C11 days ago

Quite worrying mucming around with DNA etc.
Also author please consider His not He's in writing

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heather g
heather g11 days ago

Could some of the outcry be professional jealousy?

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Ben O
Ben O11 days ago

He is an idiot... : ~ (

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Elisabeth T
Elisabeth T12 days ago

Unbelievable!

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Debbi W
Debbi W12 days ago

That supercilious idiot. If he'd thought for a moment that soon the very wealthy people would be order babies with certain characteristics, abilities, height, intelligence. . .and the list goes on and on and on. . .

It's reassuring that his 'work' isn't being well received. It's too bad that genie can't be put back in the bottle.

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Anne Moran
Anne Moran12 days ago

Like China needs more people...

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