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Chinese Scientist Claims He Made World's First Genetically Edited Babies

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A Chinese researcher claims his lab has made the world’s first genetically edited babies.

Scientist He Jiankui (HEH JEE’-an-qway), previously of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, allegedly used CRISPR to alter the DNA of twin girls born this month.

As reported by the Associated Press, He revised embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments. Only one pregnancy has so far been successful.

“Two beautiful little Chinese girls, named* Lulu and Nana, came crying into this world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago,” He said in a YouTube video (below). “The girls are home now with their mom, Grace, and dad, Mark.”

Embryologist Qin Jinzhou looks through a microscope at a laboratory in Shenzhen (via Associated Press/Mark Schiefelbein)

Grace began her pregnancy via in vitro fertilization (IVF)—with a twist: After inseminating her eggs, an embryologist sent in “a little bit of protein,” plus instructions for a gene surgery intended to protect the girls from future HIV infection.

That procedure removed the portal through which the virus enters to infect people.

Before returning Lulu and Nana to Grace’s womb, researchers used full genome sequencing to confirm the surgery took. They then monitored the pregnancy, and after birth, again deep sequenced the babies’ whole genomes.

“This verified the gene surgery worked safely,” He said. “No gene was changed—except the one to prevent HIV infection.”

In its current form, CRISPR/Cas9 is poised to become the gene-editing tool of the future.

It works a lot like a word processor’s cut-and-paste function: Scientists target a specific spot in an organism’s genetic code, cut the DNA strands, and insert a new gene or let the strands self-repair.

But the technology may not be all its cracked up to be. And it certainly has a lot of detractors.

This kind of gene editing is banned in the United States; Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in 2016 named the process as a potential weapon of mass destruction.

That hasn’t stopped rogue Chinese researchers like He, though.

He Jiankui (left) and Zhou Xiaoqin (right) work at a laboratory in Shenzhen

The Southern University of Science and Technology, from which the scientist is on non-paid leave from teaching through January 2021, heard the news “through media reports.”

“The university was deeply shocked by this event and has taken immediate action to reach Dr. Jiankui He for clarification,” it said in a statement.

SUSTech made it very clear that the project was conducted off campus (though He has a lab at the school) and without official approval.

“[We believe] that Dr. Jiankui He’s conduct in utilizing CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct,” the statement said.

An independent committee is expected to investigate the incident and release its results to the public.

Zhou Xiaoqin adjusts a monitor showing a video feed of Qin Jinzhou moving a fine glass pipette containing Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA to an embryo under a microscope at a laboratory in Shenzhen (via Associated Press/Mark Schiefelbein)

There has been no independent confirmation of the lab’s claim; He revealed it in exclusive interviews with the AP.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He said in a statement. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

Still the new kid on the block, CRISPR has shown promise in creating potential treatments for the likes of HIV, cancer, ALS, and autism.

But the He Lab’s goal is not to cure or prevent inherited disease. They simply want to grant people the ability to resist possible future infection using a trait some folks already have.

Zhou Xiaoqin places an embryo in a storage tube at a laboratory in Shenzhen (via Associated Press/Mark Schiefelbein)

“Parents don’t want a designer baby. Just a child who won’t suffer from a disease which medicine can now prevent,” He said in his video. “Gene surgery is and should remain a technology for healing. Enhancing IQ or selecting hair or eye color is not what a loving parent does. That should be banned.

“I understand my work will be controversial,” he continued, “but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them.”

* Names of the twins and their parents have been changed by the He Lab for privacy reasons

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