World's first genetically edited babies created: China scientist

Professor He Jiankui says the DNA of twin girls had been altered to prevent them from contracting HIV.
Professor He Jiankui says the DNA of twin girls had been altered to prevent them from contracting HIV.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE/THE HE LAB

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 the twin girls, born a few weeks ago, had had their DNA altered to prevent them from contracting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

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

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

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

Dr He said the babies, known as Lulu and Nana, were born through regular in-vitro fertilisation but using an egg which was specially modified before being inserted in the womb. The claims come ahead of a conference of world experts in Hong Kong today, where Dr He is expected to reveal more details.

But there is as yet no independent verification of his claims, which have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

 
 
 

The MIT Technology Review warns 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".

Other scientists have sounded caution as well. Dr Nicholas Evans, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said on Twitter that the claims were "wild".

"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," he said.

The Southern University of Science and Technology yesterday said it will immediately launch an investigation into Dr He's project. It said it had been unaware of the research and that Dr He had been on leave without pay since February.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2018, with the headline 'World's first genetically edited babies created: China scientist'. Print Edition | Subscribe