A Chinese scientist claims to have helped bring the world’s first genetically modified babies, twin girls born this month, whose DNA had previously been modified at the embryo stage. The announcement was made by him at an international Genetics conference in Hong Kong one day before his official start, as well as in an exclusive interview with the Associated Press agency.
At present, there is no independent confirmation of his claims or a relevant scientific publication, so it is difficult to verify his claims. But if they are true, then it will be an important scientific development with “side effects” in the field of bioethics.
The international scientific community has so far considered premature such a modification in humans, so it is limited to experimental animals, as there is a risk that genetic modification may pass to future generations and have a negative effect on other genes.
Chinese researcher He Giankui, who has studied at American universities and is currently a researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, as well as a founder of two genetics companies, said that using the CRISPR-Cas9 precision method genetically modified the embryos seven couples who had done extracorporeal in a fertility clinic. So far she has spawned one of these couples (twin girls).
The purpose of the genetic modification was not to prevent or treat a genetic disease but to manipulate the fetus genome in order to obtain a characteristic that few people have: physical ability to develop resistance to a possible future HIV infection by AIDS .
He said the parents of the modified embryos refused to disclose their identity or to give an interview and he did not reveal either where they live or where the genetic modification was made. As he said, “I feel great responsibility” and stressed that “society will decide what it will do from now on,” whether or not it will allow such interventions in embryonic DNA.
Some other scientists have been surprised by He’s allegations and condemned his initiative. “An experiment on human beings that are morally unacceptable,” said genetician Kira Mousounourou of the University of Pennsylvania, while Dr. Eric Topp of California’s Scripps Research Institute said, “It’s too premature. We have to do with the ‘operating instructions’ of a human being. It is not insignificant. ”
However, Harvard University’s eminent geneticist George Certz said he was consistent with such experiments as it involves HIV that poses a major public health threat.
To date, the CRISPR-Cas9 genomic processing technique has only been tested in adults to treat hereditary diseases based on a defective gene. However, the modification of the sperm, egg or fetus is different. In the US, such investigations are allowed only in laboratories, but China has not banned them (but prohibits human cloning).
He, working with American Professor Michael Diem of Rice University, had experimented for several years with animals and human embryos in his laboratory before attempting to genetically modify embryos to be born. He said that because AIDS is developing into a serious problem in China, he chose to inactivate the CCR5 gene that through a protein helps HIV infect cells.
He said his goal is to offer couples infected with HIV the chance to acquire a child who will now be physically resisting the virus. So he found couples volunteers for genetic modification through a Beijing AIDS organization, but it is not clear whether the participants were fully aware of the potential risks (He himself asserts that this has happened).
Free genetic modification was made during IVF and after fertilized embryos were three to five days old. Pairs had the option of proceeding with the implantation of a modified or non-embryo. In total, 16 embryos were modified and 11 of them were implanted until the first successful pregnancy occurred.
He argued that, as the tests showed, there seem to be no changes in genes other than that in which the modification was made. He also said that future attempts will only be made when this first attempt is analyzed and proven safe.