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Chinese Scientist Creates 'World's First Genetically Edited Babies'

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A Chinese researcher claims he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies - twin girls whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life. If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

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.

There is no independent confirmation of He's claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. He revealed it on Monday in Hong Kong to one of the organisers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin on Tuesday, and earlier in interviews with The Associated Press.

"I feel a strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example," He said. "Society will decide what to do next" in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

In recent years scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body. The tool, called CRISPR-cas9, makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that's causing problems.

It's only recently been tried in adults to treat deadly diseases, and the changes are confined to that person. Editing sperm, eggs or embryos is different - the changes can be inherited. In the US, it's not allowed except for lab research. China outlaws human cloning but not specifically gene editing.

The Chinese researcher said he practised editing mice, monkey and human embryos in the lab for several years and has applied for patents on his methods.

He said he chose to try embryo gene editing for HIV because these infections are a big problem in China. He sought to disable a gene called CCR5 that forms a protein doorway that allows HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter a cell.

All of the men in the project had HIV and all of the women did not, but the gene editing was not aimed at preventing the small risk of transmission, He said. The fathers had their infections deeply suppressed by standard HIV medicines and there are simple ways to keep them from infecting offspring that do not involve altering genes.

Instead, the appeal was to offer couples affected by HIV a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate.

The gene editing occurred during IVF, or lab dish fertilization. First, sperm was "washed" to separate it from semen, the fluid where HIV can lurk. A single sperm was placed into a single egg to create an embryo. Then the gene editing tool was added.

When the embryos were 3 to 5 days old, a few cells were removed and checked for editing. Couples could choose whether to use edited or unedited embryos for pregnancy attempts. In all, 16 of 22 embryos were edited, and 11 embryos were used in six implant attempts before the twin pregnancy was achieved, He said.

Several scientists reviewed materials that He provided to the AP and said tests so far are insufficient to say the editing worked or to rule out harm. They also noted evidence that the editing was incomplete and that at least one twin appears to be a patchwork of cells with various changes. "It's almost like not editing at all" if only some of certain cells were altered, because HIV infection can still occur, Church said.

Even if editing worked perfectly, people without normal CCR5 genes face higher risks of getting certain other viruses, such as West Nile, and of dying from the flu. Since there are many ways to prevent HIV infection and it's very treatable if it occurs, those other medical risks are a concern.

There also are questions about the way He said he proceeded. He gave official notice of his work long after he said he started it - on November 8, on a Chinese registry of clinical trials.

It's unclear whether participants fully understood the purpose and potential risks and benefits. For example, consent forms called the project an "AIDS vaccine development" programme.

"I believe this is going to help the families and their children," He said. If it causes unwanted side effects or harm, "I would feel the same pain as they do and it's going to be my own responsibility."

This is an interesting development, but I'm honestly a little shocked that we've had this technology for so long and only just now used it! It's hard to argue with people curing their HIV or AIDS, but at the same time I hope that people don't use this technology to try and design their own babies. I already feel ugly, I can't imagine how bad it would feel if there was all these blue eyed, blonde haired, zero body fat dudes with 10" dicks and rich parents walking around the place. :yeah: 

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I agree with you! I think the science is great, and it should be celebrated that we've come so far, but there needs to limitations around it's use if it ever goes further than research and lab work. For curing / preventing disease it's ok, I think, but to decide a baby's sex, hair colour, eye colour, or whatever else, seems unethical to me.

Edited by coolaideonfire

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