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Chinese Scientists Claim to Have Created World's First Gene-Edited Babies
27 November 2018, 12:58 | Justin Tyler
Chinese scientist makes claim of world’s first gene-edited babies
He Jianhui, a scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, believes he has altered the DNA of twin girls to stop them being infected in the future. The goal, he said in the interview, was to produce babies with the ability to resist HIV infection in the future by disabling CCR5, a gene that enables the virus to take hold.
He toldThe Associated Press (AP) that he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far.
However, no independent research paper has been published, and there is no official confirmation yet. The scientist revealed the project Monday to the organizers of an global conference that will begin Tuesday in Hong Kong and previously to the AP in exclusive interviews.
"We advocate the establishment of a global observatory for gene editing, as a crucial step to determining how the potential of science can be better steered by the values and priorities of society", wrote Sheila Jasanoff and J. Benjamin Hurlbut in Nature.
The professor, who was educated at Stanford University in the U.S. and works from a lab in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, said the twins' DNA was modified using CRISPR, a technique which allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision.
"Right after sending her husband's sperm into her egg, an embryologist also sent in CRISPR/Cas9 protein and instructions to perform a gene surgery meant to protect the girls from future HIV infection", he said.
"There have been signals coming out of China for a few years now" that human gene editing was likely to happen, said Caplan. He is affiliated with Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC) and also heads six companies in China, mostly in the genetics sector.
The US scientist who worked with him on this project after Mr He returned to China was physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem, who was his adviser at Rice in Houston.
It is said that many mainstream scientists feel like gene-editing humans are too unsafe to try, and others are said to have denounced this Chinese research as it being akin to human experimentation.
Prof He Jiankui announced this week that he had helped to edit a pair of twins' DNA as embryos to ensure that they could not contract HIV.
He says his team performed "gene surgery" on embryos created from their parents' sperm and eggs to protect the children from the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, which causes AIDS. All of the men in the Chinese boffin's experiment had HIV and the women did not.
Instead, the appeal was to offer couples affected by HIV a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate. First, sperm was "washed" to separate it from semen, the fluid where HIV can lurk. This technique, which has been around since 2012, is well known to scientists versed in gene editing.
"This is different from removing genes for cystic fibrosis or Huntington's Disease", she said. In the United Kingdom, officials approved studies of CRISPR in human embryos in 2016, but those embryos will not be transplanted to create a pregnancy.
"Whether the clinical protocols that resulted in the births in China conformed with the guidance in these studies remains to be determined", the group said in a statement. One twin, according to He's tests, showed signs that both copies of the CCR5 gene it inherited (one from its mother and one from its father) were successfully altered, while the other twin showed that one version of the gene it inherited was altered. People with one copy of the gene can still contract HIV.
A number of scientists have so far reviewed data that He gave to the AP, notes the report.
The issue of editing human DNA is highly controversial, and only allowed in the U.S. in laboratory research - although U.S. scientists said previous year that they had successfully edited the genetic code of piglets to remove dormant viral infections.
"We can't have a discussion if scientists are just going to barrel along and do what they want to do while the rest of us are sort of on the sidelines trying to have a conversation", she said.
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