SHENZHEN: A scientist in China claims to have successfully created the world's first genetically edited babies, in a potentially ground-breaking and controversial medical breakthrough.
The researcher, He Jiankui, posted a video on YouTube saying that the twin girls, born a few weeks ago, had had their DNA altered to prevent them from contracting HIV.
He said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, which resulted in one pregnancy, according to an Associated Press report on Monday (Nov 26).
The aim of his work at Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology was to eliminate a gene called CCR5, in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox and cholera, said the Technology Review.
All the men who went through the fertility treatment administered by He have HIV, although the virus was medically suppressed by standard HIV medication, said AP.
According to the AP report, He said that as part of the in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment, a sperm was separated from the semen where HIV can be present. The sperm was then placed into a single egg to create an embryo, before a gene editing tool was added.
He told AP that couples were recruited through a Beijing-based AIDS advocacy group called Baihualin.
The claims come ahead of a conference of world experts in Hong Kong on Tuesday, where He is expected to reveal more details.
There has so far been no independent confirmation of his claims, which have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
MORAL AND ETHICAL QUESTIONS
This type of gene editing done on humans is currently banned in the United States because it is too unsafe to try, with one gene editing expert, Dr Kiran Musunuru from the University of Pennsylvania, labeling it an "unconscionable" experiment on humans that is "not morally or ethically defensible", said the AP report.
Other scientists also sounded caution.
Nicholas Evans, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said on Twitter that the claims were "wild".
"On a basic level, announcing the test through a YouTube video is a highly problematic form of scientific practice, as it steps aside the vetting processes on which a lot of scientific advance relies, such as peer review," he told AFP.
"We've been talking about genetic engineering of embryos for a while ... what is a bit more revolutionary is that these children were allegedly engineered to provide resistance to a disease. That's a new step forward, and where a lot of peril is."
The issue of editing human DNA is extremely controversial, and only allowed in the US in laboratory research - although US scientists said last year that they had successfully edited the genetic code of piglets to remove dormant viral infections.
Sam Sternberg, assistant professor in biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia University, questioned the whole premise of He's research, noting that it was not aimed at fixing a life-threatening condition like a genetic disease for example.
"Missing from the video is the fact that edits were made to embryos that do NOT have HIV. Changes risk/benefit big-time," he tweeted.
"This breaking news story sure is an absolute bombshell for the #GeneEditSummit in Hong Kong this week. No doubt countless speakers are scrambling to update slides as we speak."