Here's what you need to know about the claims of a Chinese scientist about gene-edited babies – National


Designer babies may be here faster than calculated. A Chinese researcher who said he created babies injected with genes crossed what most scientists regard as forbidden lines.

It is not clear whether the claim is true and if so, how twin girls whose DNA has been reported to be changed will rise as they grow.

There is a broad scientific agreement that rewrites DNA before birth – to prevent inherited diseases or give babies the "designer" nature – it is not safe to try experiments outside the laboratory that do not lead to human birth.

"Very premature and very unethical," is how US bioethics expert Henry Greely from Stanford University characterizes the claim.

The first gene-edited babies made in China, according to scientists

Researcher He Jiankui from Shenzhen said he changed embryos when parents underwent fertility treatments to change genes so that they could provide babies produced with properties that some people naturally possess – protection against future infections with the AIDS virus.

"This is probably the worst gene you will choose" to test in pregnancy because it does not correct the disease destined by children, said Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health & Science University, who in laboratory experiments only studied how to correct gene defects in the embryo.

"Where is the guarantee of this mutation now producing HIV resistance?" Mitalipov added. "He tested the hypothesis on babies."

NOTE: Chinese researchers claim he helped create the world's first edited babies

Following are the questions and answers about Monday's claims and gene editing status:

What is gene editing?

This is a technology that allows scientists to change the DNA of living cells – from plants, animals, even humans – more precisely than before. It's like a biological cut-and-paste program: Enzymes that act like molecular scissors cut off parts of the gene, allowing scientists to remove, repair, or replace them.

How to use?

Researchers routinely use gene editing tools in laboratories to study disease in cells or animals, and they change food plants and animals for better farming.

But in people, gene editing is still very experimental. One study in humans was the first to test intravenous infusion of gene editing materials to fight killer metabolic diseases. Other researchers are developing ways to edit damaged cell genes and restore them, repaired, to patients with sickle cell disease and other disorders. But unlike Monday's announcement, none of the experiments will change DNA in ways that patients will give to their own children.

What did the Chinese scientists do?

Researchers said he used the CRISPR gene editing tool to change the gene called CCR5 in the embryo for seven couples during their fertility treatment; one pregnancy occurs. A certain mutation in the CCR5 gene is thought to provide some resistance to HIV by making it more difficult for the virus to enter the cell.

READ MORE: Editing Chinese genes slammed as unethical, dangerous

Medicines have now turned HIV from the death penalty into a manageable disease in most parts of the world, but He said he chose the gene because HIV remains a big problem in China.

But his claims have not been verified by outside scientists, and there are questions about how the work was done.

Why is Monday's news so controversial?

Changing genes in sperm, eggs, or embryos means that these changes can be passed on to future generations – people who have no way to approve those changes. Plus, long-term negative effects may not be seen for years.

In 2017, the US National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine said laboratory research alone to learn how to change embryos was ethical – but said it wasn't ready for pregnancy. The Academy said if it was permitted, it must be provided to treat or prevent serious illness without a good alternative.

Laboratory research is ongoing, by Mitalipov and others.

But critics said Monday's announcement opened the door for "designer babies."

"If this is unmatched, other naughty actors will soon offer rich parents who are recognized as genetic enhancements for their children," said Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society.

WATCH: Dr. David Agus explains the implications of the 'fixing' gene

What happens to those babies?

There are no independent outsiders yet, which is partly why scientists are so disturbed.

He, a Chinese researcher, said one twin had a copy of the intended gene changed while the other had only one changed. People with one copy of the mutation can still be infected with HIV.

Scientists who reviewed his claim said that the change was not exactly the same as the natural CCR5 mutation, and that the big question was whether the gene was changed in each cell.

The specific method used is common in laboratory research but it is not appropriate or sufficiently controlled for embryos, said Columbia University cell biologist Dietrich Egli, who calls it "genomically vandalism."

What are the dangers?

The biggest concern: Accuracy, or lack thereof. Unwanted mutations can endanger health than help.

NOTE: Scientists edit human genes in the body for the first time – but what are the risks?

Is gene editing for pregnancy legal?

Where you live determines whether, or what type, research can be done on human embryos. In the US, scientists can conduct laboratory embryo research with only personal funding, not with federal taxpayer money. Any pregnancy effort will require permission from the Food and Drug Administration, which is currently banned by Congress even to review such requests – a de facto ban.

Are there other ways to prevent inherited diseases?

People who undergo fertility treatments that include IVF can have embryos tested for deadly gene mutations that occur in families, such as Huntington's disease, and then plant only embryos that do not have that mutation. Also, some mitochondrial disorders can be overcome by using some genetic material from the mother and some from donor eggs, along with father's sperm.


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