Genetic modification is an area of science fraught with controversy. Many countries have banned human gene modification. Despite the judgement of a dubious international scientific community, and all of the ethical challenges, a new report claims the first genetically-modified humans have been born.
Chinese researcher Dr He Jiankui reportedly led the team that altered the DNA of two twin embryos. LuLu and Nana, the two children, were born with an immunity to HIV.
Dr. Jiankui reportedly injected his test embryos with the Cas9 protein using the controversial gene editing tool Crispr, which stands for “Clustered Regularly Inter-Spaced Palindromic Repeats.”
Gene editing has been banned in many countries for fear that the editing process might have unintended consequences and that these mutations might be passed on to future generations.
“The gene editing occurred during IVF, or lab dish fertilization,” Dr He Jiankui explained in a statement.
“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 three to five 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.”
Dr Jiankui works at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen. The experiments, he argues, were not to create super-humans, or monsters, but to take an existing genetic trait (immunity) and put it in an embryo that lacked that trait.
Couples volunteered to participate in the experiments and are remaining anonymous.
This is, of course, where the skeptics come in. Many doubt Dr. Jiankui’s claims. Almost all experiments of this nature would be detailed in an academic journal. This study has not. This leaves many with the suspicion that the results have been exaggerated.
“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” Dr. Jiankui told reporters.
“Society will decide what to do next.”