DNA strands are the building blocks of life. Photo: iStock
DNA strands are the building blocks of life. Photo: iStock

China has claimed to have created the world’s first genetically-edited babies. While the fallout has created a global storm in the medical profession, scientists have sounded a note of caution about the claims.

Yet in a potentially ground-breaking process, Chinese university professor He Jiankui posted a video on YouTube saying that the twin girls, born a few weeks ago, had their DNA altered to prevent them from contracting HIV.

He, who was educated at Stanford University in the US and works from a lab in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, said their DNA was modified using CRISPR, a technique which allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision.

The development emerged Sunday in an article published by industry journal the MIT Technology Review, which referenced medical documents posted online by He’s research team at the Southern University of Science and Technology to recruit couples for the experiments.

The video then went online, prompting a heated debate among the scientific community, with many casting doubts over the claimed breakthrough while others decried it as a modern form of eugenics.

He said the babies, known as “Lulu” and “Nana” although they are not their real names, were born through regular IVF but using an egg which was specially modified before being inserted into the womb.

“Right after sending her husband’s sperm into her egg, an embryologist also sent in CRISPR/Cas9 protein and instructions to perform a gene surgery intended to protect the girls from future HIV infection,” he said.

The claims come ahead of a conference of world experts in Hong Kong on November 27, where He is expected to reveal more details

But there is as yet no independent verification of his claims, which have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal – an omission that the scientist’s critics have seized on.

The MIT Technology Review warns that “the technology is ethically charged because changes to an embryo would be inherited by future generations and could eventually affect the entire gene pool.”

Other scientists have also been left bemused.

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 from 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.”

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.

– reporting from AFP

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