A researcher, who was also an advisor at Rice University in the US, has announced his involvement with a Chinese researcher in the making and birth of the world’s first genetically edited babies, a pair of twins that are the first-ever humans to have their DNA edited before birth.
If the claims are true, the editing of genes before birth are not only a profound leap in science, but many are also calling it a dangerous leap in scientific and medical ethics, who say such work is too unsafe to attempt for a variety of reasons.
The genetics engineering work was performed in China, under the lead of He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher. He was assisted by Michael Deem, a bioengineering professor who is an advisor at Rice University, who is now under investigation in the US.
Gene editing work of this kind is banned in the United States, but not in China.
Scientific researchers in China used a DNA editing tool called CRISPR-cas9 to alter DNA in an embryo. During the process, a single sperm was placed into a single egg to create an embryo, after which the gene editing tool was used in lab dish fertilization or IVF.
After the embryos had developed between 3-5 days in age, the researchers removed a few cells to examine them to check if the editing was successful.
The research team edited 16 of 22 embryos. Of those, 11 were used in six implant attempts, one of which achieved a twin pregnancy.
The goal of the DNA altering was to block the genes that can transmit HIV from parents to children. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is a big problem in China. Many infected people have trouble getting medical care or lose their jobs if their infections are revealed. The idea was to prevent the children of infected parents from inheriting the disease.
Of the couples involved in the project, all of the men had HIV infections and all of the women did not.
The researchers were attempting to disable a gene called CCR5 that forms a protein doorway that allows HIV to enter a cell.
Editing the DNA of human beings is still in its nascent form. It’s still too early in the technology’s development to understand the repercussions of DNA manipulation in humans.
Unlike altering the DNA in an already living human being where genetic changes can be isolated to that person, changes to DNA prior to birth results in alterations that can be passed to future generations through reproduction. There is yet any understanding toward the inheritance of altered DNA. Further, there is not enough known about how altering human DNA risks harming other genes.