Chinese researcher claims to have made the first CRISPR-edited babies

DNA
As germline edits, the new traits could be passed on to offspring. (Pixabay)

A Chinese researcher has claimed to be the first to use CRISPR gene-editing tools on live, implanted human embryos, resulting in the birth of twin girls and swift international backlash over the ethics of the procedure.

According to reports from the Associated Press and the MIT Technology Review, researcher He Jiankui, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, and others recruited couples in China seeking in vitro fertilization.

They planned to delete the genes linked to CCR5, a cell surface receptor used by HIV to enter and infect cells. Embryos from seven couples were altered using CRISPR-Cas9, resulting in one twin pregnancy, He told the AP. The procedure could give the babies the ability to resist future infections, the researcher said.

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But as germline edits, those traits could be passed on to their offspring—creating the ethical dilemma over whether today’s DNA research can be trusted with making direct changes to the course of the species. Other scientists pointed to currently available prophylactic treatments and antiretroviral drugs that can be effective in preventing HIV transmission and infection, saying the procedure was unnecessary.

In a YouTube video, He said the twins, named Lulu and Nana, were born healthy within the past few weeks, but there have been no independent confirmations or scientific papers based on the claim. The Southern University has said that He’s work violated its ethics and standards, while researchers around the world have described the work as premature and unsafe experimentation on human beings.

The claims were made in the days ahead of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, where He is slated to speak on two panels, including a breakout session on embryo and germline editing titled “A Forward Look at Research, Application, and Governance.”

According to The Guardian, China’s National Health Commission has ordered an investigation into He’s claims, while the Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission has begun examining the ethics of the study.