A Chinese scientist called He Jiankui claims to have used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR to modify the genetic material of twin baby girls born this month in China. Gene editing of this sort is banned in the US due to fear of the DNA changes being passed to future generations with the risk of harm to other genes. Some have denounced the researcher for human experimentation and claim that this sort of practice is too unsafe to try.
He claims to have used the gene editing tool to bestow a trait that few people born naturally have, an ability to resist future infection with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. The researcher claims to have changed the embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments to disable the CCR5 gene that allows HIV to enter a cell, one pregnancy was announced so far.
Another report claims that He has refused reply to a list of questions submitted to him about the research. However, that report notes that data provided as part of the trial listing confirmed genetic tests had been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks. It’s not known if the pregnancy referred to was carried to term, is ongoing, or was terminated. He has since released a video touting his success with the twin girls.
He has so far declined to give the name of the twin girls, the names of their parents, and where they live is also unannounced. He and his research have been condemned widely by scientists around the world with some saying that this sort of experimentation on humans is not morally or ethically defensible. Other prominent researchers, such as Harvard’s George Chruch, said that he thinks attempting gene editing to prevent HIV is “justifiable.”
Gene editing to treat diseases has been tried in adults recently, and in that case, the changes are limited to that one person. The problem that many have with what He has done is that offspring down the road can inherit genetic modifications made to sperm, eggs, or embryos. Some have called He’s work illegal, but while human cloning is illegal in China, gene editing isn’t. He has a lab at the Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen; the university has stated that the work “seriously violated academic ethics and standards” and that an investigation is underway.