Chinese scientists claim to have created the first genetically modified babies | Science

A scientist from the University of Shenzhen (southern China), He Jiankui, and his team, claim to have created the first genetically modified babies. The babies, Lulu and Nana, two girls born "several weeks ago", are in perfect health, says the geneticist, He Jiankui, who used the gene editing technique known as CRISPR to mutate a gene and make the small ones resistant to the virus that causes AIDS.

He's controversial claim could not be contrasted. The research has not been published in any specialized scientific journal, where it should have been submitted to the analysis of other experts.

In a video posted on YouTube, a smiling He explains from a laboratory that "two charming little Chinese twins, Lulu and Nana, have been born in the last weeks in excellent health, to the joy of their mother, Grace, and her dad, Mark". The father, says He, is a carrier of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, and never thought he could procreate.

According to the expert, who is in Hong Kong this week to participate in a conference on the ethics of genetic manipulation, girls were conceived by artificial insemination. At the time of fertilization, the scientific team introduced, together with the father's sperm, the CRISPR reagents to inactivate the CCR5 gene. The aim was to modify the gene that the virus uses as a gateway to enter the human immune system.

If it's true, this experiment is monstrous. The embryos were healthy, with no known diseases. The genetic edition itself is experimental and it is still associated with unwanted mutations, capable of causing genetic problems in the early and later stages of life, including the development of cancer

Throughout the development of the embryos, first in the laboratory and then implanted in the uterus of their mother, the experts checked several times, sequencing the genetic code of the creatures, that everything was developing as it should and the girls did not present more mutations than the planned one "No other gene has changed," He says. The check was repeated after birth, originally announced in an exclusive interview with the AP agency and in an article in the magazine MIT Technology Review.

According to the AP, the parents of Lulu and Nana are not the only ones who have had their tests. Six other couples, where the male is HIV-positive, have also accepted the program, which opens the possibility that the two girls are not the only genetically modified ones.

The geneticist, trained in the United States and returned to China as part of a program to attract talents educated abroad, says he is aware of the controversy that his initiative will arouse. But, he says, it does not seem to present ethical problems. All he has done, he says, is "open an equal opportunity to have healthy families."

And the criticisms have already started to rain. The test would have been impossible under US law and illegal under European standards. But in China the regulations are not so strict. This country was already the first to modify genes from human embryos (not viable) and from monkeys with CRISPR.

Professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, told the Science Media Center that "if this is true, this experiment is monstrous". "The embryos were healthy, with no known diseases. The genetic edition itself is experimental and it is still associated with unwanted mutations, capable of causing genetic problems in the early and later stages of life, including the development of cancer. " The expert also recalls that there are already much more effective ways to prevent AIDS, including protected sex, and even if the syndrome is contracted, there are now effective treatments. "This experiment exposes normal, healthy children to risks of genetic editing in exchange for no real necessary benefit."

According to Savulescu, the experiment "contradicts decades of ethical consensus and guidelines on the protection of human participants in research evidence." Babies resulting from the He tests are being used as genetic guinea pigs. That's a genetic Russian roulette. "

He, on the other hand, remembers the criticisms that rained around the birth of Louise Brown, the first child conceived through in vitro fertilization. His technique, he argues, is "another IVF advance" that will only be applied to a small number of families affected by an illness.

"It's not about creating designer babies, just a healthy child," he says. It does not seek to "improve intelligence, change eye color, appearance or anything similar. It's not about that". His method "may be the only way to cure some disease."

"I understand that my work will be controversial, but I think families need this technology, and I am willing to accept the criticism," says He, who stresses that he himself is the father of two daughters. "I can not think of a healthier or more beautiful gift for society than to give a couple the opportunity to start a family full of love."

Commercial interests

"We must maintain skepticism and assume that we still do not know if what they tell us has happened," says Lluís Montoliu, a researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology who uses the CRISPR technique to create mice with rare diseases similar to human . "It seems more an announcement of some of the companies of this researcher, who has companies and therefore has interests in this regard, rather than a scientific communication," he says, according to reports. Manuel Ansede.

Montoliu recalls that the experiment with Chinese girls would be absolutely illegal in Spain and in many other countries, even in those that advocate a therapeutic application of genetic publishing, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. "It is an application of genetic improvement. It is not about curing a disease that has underlying or a disease that may develop throughout his life, but it is about prevention. We are improving that person ", warns the expert.


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