Speed Reads

weird science

Chinese researcher announces controversial birth of first genetically modified babies

Late Sunday, Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had helped create the world's first genetically edited babies, twin girls born earlier in November. If verified, this would be a big and controversial leap in science. He said he used a new gene-editing tool called CRISPR-cas9 to remove a gene called CCR5 from embryos fertilized in a lab, in an attempt to make the genetically modified children immune to HIV, the AIDS virus. Most bioethicists and experts in the gene-editing field condemned the work as premature and morally indefensible.

Gene editing has only recently been used in adults to treat fatal disease, but "editing sperm, eggs, or embryos is different — the changes can be inherited," The Associated Press reports. "In the U.S., it's not allowed except for lab research. China outlaws human cloning but not specifically gene editing." The modifications He attempted to make weren't aimed at preventing the children from being born with HIV via their HIV-positive fathers, since "there are simple ways to keep them from infecting offspring that do not involve altering genes," AP notes. "Instead, the appeal was to offer couples affected by HIV a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate," and that's how He pitched the experiment to participants.

The Chinese researcher He had some assistance from a U.S. colleague, Rice University physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem. "Both men are physics experts with no experience running human clinical trials," AP notes. One of the twins had both CCR5 gene removed and the other only one, He said, citing preliminary tests, but several scientists who reviewed what research He released told AP those tests are insufficient to show the editing worked as intended or to rule out harm to the girls. The parents, identified as Grace and Mark, did not want to be identified or interviewed, He said.