A Chinese scientist is claiming to have created the world’s first genetically modified baby. This comes as many doctors and scientists warn that genetic modification of humans could pose irreversible health problems and is an ethics violation.
Many mainstream scientists think gene editing humans is still too unsafe to try, and some have even denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation, according to The Associated Press. A United States scientist said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.
He Jiankui of Shenzhen, the Chinese scientist claiming to have altered twin girls’ genes, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have: the ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus. Although his path is paved with good intentions, many have warned of the dangers of this type of genetic modification.
He said he chose embryo gene editing for HIV because these infections are a big problem in China. He sought to disable a gene called CCR5 that forms a protein doorway that allows HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter a cell. But not all scientists are on board with He’s genetic modifications.
It’s “unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal. But He declares otherwise. “I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the Associated Press. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.
“This is far too premature,” said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. “We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal.” However, one famed geneticist, Harvard University’s George Church, defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called “a major and growing public health threat.” Church added, “I think this is justifiable,” Church said of the goal to make humans resistant to the virus.
The Associated Press further reported that there is no independent confirmation of He’s claim as of yet, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. He revealed his claims on Monday in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin Tuesday, and earlier in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.
In recent years scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body. The tool, called CRISPR-cas9, makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable the one that’s causing problems.
“I believe this is going to help the families and their children,” He said. If it causes unwanted side effects or harm, “I would feel the same pain as they do and it’s going to be my own responsibility.”