By Lan KB
Yes, don’t be shocked. Man has created designer babies. They are called Lulu and Nana.
Meet Chinese researcher He Jiankui. This week he claimed he used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to make the world’s first genetically edited babies.
How did he do that?
By altering the embryos of seven couples (the males had HIV) during in vitro fertilization (IVF). This led to one pregnancy and the birth of twin girls with pseudonyms Lulu and Nana.
Why did he do that?
He says it was to remove the pathway through which HIV enters by instructing CRISPR-Cas9 to disable a gene called CCR5.
Babies with HIV resistance, a trait that fewer than 1 percent of people are estimated to have.
Who is He Jiankui?
He is 34 and a father of two girls. He studied at Stanford University and Rice University before returning to China. He now runs two genetics companies and a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen.
His recent work broke from scientific protocol and ethical norms, both in method and delivery, says this report. The research wasn’t published in a peer-reviewed journal, so his claims that the editing was successful (and that no other genes were harmed) remain unverified.
Unconventionally, he made the announcement at an international gene editing conference and in interviews with the Associated Press.
In his words
In a video posted on YouTube, he spoke about discrimination that HIV-positive people still face in China and many developing countries.
“Gene surgery is and should remain a technology for healing. I understand that my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology, and I’m willing to take the criticism for them.”
Has there been backlash?
Definitely there has been. The scientific community has raised serious concerns on the issue.
They say Using CRISPR to modify sperm, eggs or embryos is banned in the US (besides in lab research). (Take note that it is permitted in China.)
This also has the risk of altering other genes that weren’t meant to be modified. When CRISPR is used to treat deadly diseases in adults, those changes are confined to the individual. But when it comes to embryos, those changes can be inherited by future generations.
“Modifying human embryos at this stage in our understanding of biology is clearly unethical. We do not yet understand the full biological consequences of these actions even in small animals,” says Christopher Anderson, a bioengineering professor at UC Berkeley.
But He has his supporters too
Harvard University geneticist George Church calls HIV “a major and growing public health threat,” telling the Associated Press of He’s gene editing: “I think this is justifiable.”
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