Baby Gene-Editing Breakthrough Claim Slammed


Designer babies might be here sooner than anyone reckoned.

He helped make world's first genetically edited babies: twin girls whose DNA he said he altered.

It's not clear if the claim is true and if so, how the twin girls whose DNA reportedly was altered will fare as they grow.

In speaking with the press, He makes some bold claims about what he was able to accomplish in editing the genes of the human embryos using the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic modification tool, but his story has a few holes that will need to be addressed.

He had studied in the past at Rice and Stanford universities in the United States. The scientist claimed he altered seven couples' embryos during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting.

"The project completely ignored the principles of biomedical ethics, conducting experiments on humans without proving it's safe", said Qiu Zilong, a neuroscience researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai who wrote the letter. Mitalipov added. "He's testing his hypothesis on babies".

Thanks to the proliferation and fast-falling cost of new genetic technology, that one day scientists would alter the DNA of an unborn person was increasingly inevitable. It's like a biological cut-and-paste program: An enzyme that acts like molecular scissors snips a section of a gene, allowing scientists to delete, fix or replace it. University officials said they had no knowledge of his research and had launched an investigation.

One problem with CRISPR editing is that it sometimes introduces mutations far from the gene at which it is aimed at correcting.

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"Gene editing technology is not ideal and... can cause birth defects, from spina bifida to learning disabilities, and could create genetic diseases we have never even heard of before".

Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of genome editing from the University of California, Berkeley, said that the experiment appeared to be a "clear break" from the cautious and transparent approach recommended by global leaders.

The CRISPR tool is a recently developed tool for adding necessary genes or disabling harmful ones to treat diseases in adults, though the US only allows it to be used in lab research. This acts like molecular scissors to "snip out" the CCR5 gene that triggers a protein to allow HIV into cells. HIV is responsible for AIDS and a cure for the disease is yet to be found.

The claim-yet to be reported in a scientific paper-initiated a firestorm of criticism today, with some scientists and bioethicists calling the work "premature", "ethically problematic", and even "monstrous". He's experiment altered the genomes of embryos produced through IVF; their genetic changes will therefore be passed on to any future generations. Plus, long-term negative effects might not become apparent for years. And the group has proved resilient to previous potential set-backs, including studies suggesting the technique could promote cancer-causing mutations in cells and hesitance from USA regulators on Crispr Therapeutic's first in-human trial. But other researchers disagree. He said he planned for it to also go "through the peer review process, and through a pre-print soon".

No independent outsiders know yet, which is partly why scientists are so disturbed.

"When Lulu and Nana were just a single cell, this surgery removed a doorway through which HIV enter to infect people", He says in the video, one of several posted online to justify and explain the work. As to how exactly JK has gone about it, he says that he sought to disable the CCR5 gene.

But Rao Yi, a renowned biologist with the Peking University, said this could carry additional risks and cited experiments on mice that showed "disabled or missing CCR5 could lead to cardiovascular diseases".

The secrecy concerns have been compounded by lack of proof for his claims. And researchers around the world have been racing to determine how it could be done safely. In the USA, it's not allowed except for lab research. The increasing ubiquity and sophistication of genetic technologies has made controlling their use hard, and there have been few attempts at developing worldwide standards for regulating them.