A scientist claims to have helped create the world’s first genetically-modified humans during laboratory work in China.
The DNA of twin girls was altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life, Chinese researcher Dr He Jiankui says.
He claims the babies, named LuLu and Nana, were born a few weeks ago and have a resistance to infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.
A US scientist said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States due to risks that altered DNA will warp other genes.
These potentially dangerous changes may then be passed down to future generations.
Gene editing is banned in Britain, the US many other parts of the world, and researchers said that, if Dr He’s claims are true, the ‘monstrous’ experiment was ‘not morally or ethically defensible.’
Dr Jiankui, of the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far.
He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have – an ability to resist infection with HIV.
He said the parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and would not say where they live or where the work was done.
There is no independent confirmation of Dr He’s claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts.
He announced the research Monday in Hong Kong to an organiser of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin Tuesday, and earlier in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.
‘I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,’ he told the AP.
‘Society will decide what to do next’ in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.
Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.
It’s ‘unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,’ said Dr Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.
‘This is far too premature,’ said Dr Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. ‘We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal.’
‘If true, this experiment is monstrous,’ said Professor Julian Savulescu, Director of the University of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.
‘These healthy babies are being used as genetic guinea pigs. This is genetic Russian Roulette.’
However, one famed geneticist, Harvard University’s Professor George Church, defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called ‘a major and growing public health threat.’
‘I think this is justifiable,’ Professor Church said of that goal.
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