Researchers Say World's First Gene-Edited Babies Have Been Born in China

Christopher Davidson
December 3, 2018

It's not the usual way that reputable scientists announce their breakthroughs to the world, but on Monday, Jiankui He released a video proclaiming that he had produced the world's first human babies whose genomes were edited using the powerful technique called CRISPR. The scientist, He Jiankui, announced his accomplishment at an worldwide gathering of people in the field, rather than the more conventional method of publishing it in a peer-reviewed journal.

The scientist revealed his claims in Hong Kong to an organizer of an worldwide conference on gene editing, and an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.

The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen said earlier in the week he had been on unpaid leave since February, and it would be investigating the claims.

The result He claims, was newborn twin girls, who have been bestowed with immunity to HIV through CRISPR edited DNA.

There is no independent confirmation of what He says he did. They said that Pandora's Box has been opened.

He, on the other hand, has apparently jumped ahead to producing the first human babies born with CRISPR editing.

In this October 10, 2018 photo, He Jiankui, left, and Zhou Xiaoqin work a computer at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province.

In interviews, He Jiankui defended his work. He later said more such babies may be on the way. "Society will decide what to do next", he said.

It is apparent that He, a scientist who studied at Rice and Stanford universities in the United States before returning to China, was determined to make his announcement a bombshell in the global scientific arena. In a statement, the university said it was unaware of his work, emphasizing that it was not conducted on campus.

"It's just unconscionable. Experimentation on humans is immoral and not ethically justified", said Kieran Musunuru geneticist from the University of Pennsylvania.

The real local authority - Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission - said it had never heard of this project before and has already launched an investigation.

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"Not following these guidelines would be an irresponsible act", he added.

In this October 9, 2018 photo, a microplate containing embryos that have been injected with Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA is seen in a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology that allows scientists to essentially cut-and-paste DNA, raising hope of genetic fixes for disease.

And American biochemist David Liu - a co-inventor of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology that He said he used to alter the gene - said the procedure was unnecessary.

Two days later, he was grilled on the necessity of the experiment and his responsibility for the lives of the gene-edited children, who risked developing unintended mutations and even had the potential to change the gene pool of the human species, according to critics.

"It's premature", also questioned Dr. Eric Topol from the Scripps Translational Research Institute in California - "We are dealing with a manual person".

Critics of genetic modification say that these experiments have no moral and ethical justification.

Julian Savulescu, a medical ethics expert at Britain's University of Oxford, agreed.

If true, it would be a controversial step in science and ethics.

Reports indicate that gene-edited twin girls have now been born. He told the AP that since HIV is "a major and growing public health threat" he finds such experiments "justifiable".

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