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Chinese Scientists Are Creating CRISPR Babies

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2018

In an article for MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado reports that researchers in Shenzhen, led by He Jiankui, are recruiting couples for a study to produce the first genetically edited human babies. They are hoping to use the CRISPR gene editing technique to “eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera”.

The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine that eliminates genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics.

“In this ever more competitive global pursuit of applications for gene editing, we hope to be a stand-out,” He and his team wrote in an ethics statement they submitted last year. They predicted their innovation “will surpass” the invention of in vitro fertilization, whose developer was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2010.

A follow-up by the Associated Press indicates that He’s program is already underway and has resulted in a successful birth of twins earlier this month.

The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have - an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.

He said the parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and he would not say where they live or where the work was done.

Update: He is now under investigation for legal and ethical misconduct.

On Sunday, the Shenzhen City Medical Ethics Expert Board said it would begin an investigation of He’s research and released a statement saying that HarMoniCare “according to our findings … never conducted the appropriate reporting according to requirements.” The former medical director of the private hospital, Jiang Su-Qi, told Southern Capital News he had no recollection of approving He’s research while he was on its ethics committee.

“These two children are the guinea pigs. They will go through their whole maturing process having not understood the risks ahead of time,” said Liu Ying of Peking University’s Institute of Molecular Medicine.