A lot of curiosity, comments and questions have been raised over the claims by a Chinese scientist on the dramatic CRISPR research. He Jiankui, from a university in Shenzhen has told the Associated Press that he has succeeded in helping create the world’s first genetically-edited babies. As per the claims of the Chinese researcher, twin girls were born earlier this month. Dr. Jiankui said that he edited embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments using CRISPR technology to remove the CCR5 gene and resulting in one pregnancy until now. This plays a critical role in enabling many forms of the HIV virus to infect cells.
He said the gene editing occurred during IVF or lab-dish fertilization. First, sperm was “washed” and a single sperm was placed into a single egg to create an embryo. Then the gene editing tool was used. 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. Eleven embryos were used in six attempts before the twin pregnancy was achieved, He said. Tests suggest that one twin had both copies of the intended gene-altered and the other twin had just one altered, with no evidence of harm to other genes, He said. People with one copy can still get HIV.
According to documents linked by the Technology Review, the study was approved by the Medical Ethics Committee of Shenzhen HOME Women’s and Children’s Hospital. The summary on the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry also said the study’s execution time is between March 7, 2017, to March 7, 2019, and that it sought married couples living in China who met its health and age requirements and are willing to undergo IVF therapy.
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. Instead, He is willing to offer couples affected by HIV a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate. The Chinese scientist said he chose to try embryo gene editing for HIV because those infections are a big problem in China. He sought to disable a gene called CCR5 that forms a protein doorway allowing HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter a cell.
All the men in the project had HIV and all 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. The parents involved declined to be identified or interviewed, and he would not say where they live or where the work was done.
If the research and the claims are true, it would be a profound leap in science and ethics. Moreover, this powerful new tool will be capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.
However, many scientists have reviewed the materials provided to the AP and said that the tests so far are insufficient to draw conclusions. Also, there has been no independent confirmation of He’s claim, and neither has it been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. Dr. Jiankui revealed it Monday in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin on Tuesday, and earlier in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.
He Jiankui studied at Rice and Stanford universities in the US before opening a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, where he also has two genetics companies. The US scientist who worked with him on this project after He returned to China was physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem, who was his adviser at Rice. Deem also holds what he called “a small stake” in and serves on the scientific advisory boards of He’s two companies.
“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the AP. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.