Gene-edited babies in China

By Angela Napoletano

It seems that He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who announced to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies, has been arrested.

The news has been spread by the South China Morning Post even if it has not been confirmed by officials. Is this good news?

Science’s progresses are usually perceived as important steps forward into a better future, but not in this case. The Chinese scientist has claimed to have tweaked the DNA of two human embryos before birth. Due to the genetic changes, two twin girls, Nana and Lulu, were born with resistance to HIV. He was proud of his work and said that another woman enrolled in his trial was pregnant with a similarly modified baby.

Speaking to hundreds of colleagues and journalists at the International Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong, the scientist gave only a few details of the trial. He explained how he used Crispr-Cas9 gene-editing technology to modify a gene called CCR5 in a number of embryos created through IVF for couples with HIV-positive fathers. The modification was intended to mirror a natural mutation found in a small percentage of people which makes them resistant to the virus.

He said also he would have monitored the health of both children for the next 18 years and that the trial had been submitted to a scientific journal. He did not name it, nor did he say when the results would be published.

As it can be readily imagined, the news is caught up in controversy. Part of the scientific community condemned the lack of transparency and self-regulation by the team that carried out the trial.

Genome editing, furthermore, is not considered safe. Any genetic modification – whether beneficial or unintentionally harmful – is expected to affect not only the child, but their children and future generations. For these reasons the practice is illegal in theUK and in many other countries worldwide.

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