Chinese scientist defends gene-editing

Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaks at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong KongImage copyright

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Prof He’s university has denied any knowledge of the research which has not been reviewed by peers

A Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies has defended his work.

Speaking at a genome summit in Hong Kong, He Jiankui said he was “proud” of his work. “Another potential pregnancy” of a gene-edited embryo was in its early stages, he said.

The claims have not been independently verified. Many scientists have condemned the announcement, some calling the idea monstrous.

Such work is banned in most countries.

Prof He’s university – the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen – said it was unaware of the research project and would launch an investigation.

Prof He announced earlier this week that he had altered the DNA of embryos – twin girls – to prevent them from contracting HIV.

In a video, he claims to have eliminated a gene called CCR5 to make the girls resistant to HIV, should they ever come into contact with the virus.

His claims were widely criticised by other scientists, one of whom called the idea “monstrous”.

Hundreds of Chinese scientists also signed a letter on social media condemning the research, saying they were “resolutely” opposed to it.

“If true, this experiment is monstrous. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer,” Prof Julian Savulescu, an ethics expert at the University of Oxford earlier told the BBC.

“This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit.”

‘Normal and healthy’

On Wednesday, Prof He spoke at the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong for the first time about his work since the uproar.

He revealed that the twin girls – known as “Lulu” and “Nana” – were “born normal and healthy”, adding that there were plans to monitor the twins over the next 18 years.

He explained that eight couples – comprised of HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers – had signed up voluntarily for the experiment; one couple later dropped out.

He added that he had initially funded the experiment by himself.

Prof He also said that the study had been submitted to a scientific journal for review, though he did not name the journal.

The Crispr gene editing tool he claims to have used is not new to the scientific world, and was first discovered in 2012.

It works by using “molecular scissors” to alter a very specific strand of DNA – either cutting it out, replacing it or tweaking it.

Gene editing could potentially help avoid heritable diseases by deleting or changing troublesome coding in embryos.

But experts worry meddling with the genome of an embryo could cause harm not only to the individual but also future generations that inherit these same changes.

Many countries, including the UK, have laws that prevent the use of genome editing in embryos for assisted reproduction in humans.

Scientists can do gene editing research on discarded IVF embryos, as long as they are destroyed immediately afterwards and not used to make a baby.

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