A claim that’s causing a stir

  • AseanPlus News
  • Tuesday, 27 Nov 2018

Controversial experiment: Embryologist Qin Jinzhou working at He’s lab in Shenzhen. — AP

HONG KONG: A scientist in China claims to have created the world’s first genetically-edited babies, in a potentially groundbreaking and controversial medical first.

Chinese university professor He Jiankui posted a video on YouTube saying that the twin girls, born a few weeks ago, had had their DNA altered to prevent them from contracting HIV.

The professor, who was educated at Stanford in the United States and works from a lab in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, said their DNA was modified using CRISPR, a technique which allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision.

The development emerged on Sunday in an article published by industry journal MIT Technology Review, which referenced medical documents posted online by He’s team at the Southern University of Science and Techno­logy to recruit couples for the experiments.

He’s video then went online, prompting a heated debate among the scientific community, including experts who cast doubt over the claime and others who decried it as a modern form of eugenics.

He said the babies, known as “Lulu” and “Nana” (not their real names), were born through regular in vitro fertilisation but using an egg that was specially modified before being inserted into the womb.

“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 intended to protect the girls from future HIV infection,” he said.

The claims come ahead of a conference of world experts in Hong Kong today, where He is expected to reveal more details.

Medical marvel?: A microplate containing embryos injected with Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA. — AP
Medical marvel?: A microplate containing embryos injected with Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA. — AP

But there has been no independent verification of his claims, which have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal – an omission critics have seized on.

The MIT Technology Review warned that “the technology is ethically charged because changes to an embryo would be inherited by future generations and could eventually affect the entire gene pool”.

Nicholas Evans, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said on Twitter that the claims were “wild”.

“On a basic level, announcing the test through a YouTube video is a highly problematic form of scientific practice, as it steps aside the vetting processes on which a lot of scientific advance relies, such as peer review,” he said.

“We’ve been talking about genetic engineering of embryos for a while ... what is a bit more revolutionary is that these children were allegedly engineered to provide resistance to a disease. That’s a new step forward and where a lot of peril is.”

The issue of editing human DNA is highly controversial and only allowed in the United States in laboratory research, although US scientists said last year that they had successfully edited the genetic code of piglets to remove dormant viral infections.

This is not the first time Chinese researchers have experimented with human embryo technology. Last September, scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in China used an adapted version of gene-editing to correct a disease-causing mutation in human embryos. — AFP

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