The statement by a Chinese scientist in a video that he created the world’s first genetically modified babies has provoked a global response. In a video published on Sunday 25 November 2018 and then at the agency APnews, university professor He Jiankui announced the birth of binoculars whose DNA has been modified to prevent HIV infection. He explains that the DNA of the two children was modified using CRISPR-Cas9, a technique discovered in 2012 by Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier, which allows scientists to remove and replace a piece of genome with extreme precision.

“Girls are safe and healthy, like all other babies,” said He, who was educated at Stanford University and works in a laboratory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen (according to him). He has not provided evidence of his work, which has not been independently verified or published in a scientific journal.

Genetically modified babies ChinaCredit : AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

He Jiankui states that the twins, called “Lulu” and “Nana”, were born by regular in vitro fertilization but using a specially modified egg before being inserted into the uterus of the woman who carried the twins. It focused on the prevention of HIV infection due to the father of the girls who is HIV-positive.

The sperm cells would have been isolated and then inserted into the egg, forming an embryo into which a CRISPR-Case9 assembly would have been injected. Then, after three to five days of development, cells were extracted to ensure that genome editing had been performed. In total, sixteen out of twenty-two embryos tested were modified. Then eleven of them were used in six implantation attempts, for a double pregnancy, finally made to term.

“Now he has a reason to live, a reason to work, he has a purpose,” said He Jiankui.

genetically modified baby chinaCredit : AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Modification of embryo genes is prohibited in many countries because changes in DNA, which will in turn be passed on to future generations, could have unforeseen effects on the entire genetic heritage.

In the midst of a tide of criticism, the China’s National Health Commission ordered the Chinese authorities on 26 November, late in the day, to “conduct a serious investigation” to verify the author’s claims. As for the Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission, it stated that it was investigating the ethics committee and the process of reviewing its work.

While other countries are less advanced in conducting human clinical trials using CRISPR, China has advanced its research. In 2016, China was the first country to inject genetically modified cells into a patient with basic fatal lung cancer. The country is also developing the world’s largest DNA database.

However, Chinese scientists were dismayed by his work. A joint statement issued by more than 120 Chinese scientists pointed out He Jiankui as crazy and called on the authority to enact laws on this type of research.

“Pandora’s box has been opened, but we may still have a chance to close it before the damage is irreparable,” the statement reads, criticizing the influence of her work on other scientists. “It is extremely unfair to Chinese scientists who are diligent, innovative and defending scientific ethics.”

In the midst of all this noise, the research institutions linked to He Jiankui have distanced themselves from the scientist. “This research work was carried out by Professor He Jiankui outside the school,” said the University of Science and Technology of the South in Shenzhen (SUSTech), where he worked. They even described his research as a serious violation of ethics and academic standards.

genetically modified baby chinaCredit : AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

A hospital in Shenzhen, where He Jiankui says he received approval from a committee to do his work, denied any connection to the scientist. The hospital, Shenzhen Harmonicare Women’s and Children’s Hospital, reported that it had filed a report with the police.

The truth is that China does not explicitly prohibit genetic modification on embryos for reproductive purposes, but the Ministry of Science, Technology and Public Health has published ethical guidelines that no human embryos used for research can be implanted in humans or animals for reproductive purposes.

On Weibo (a well-known social network in China), it became one of the most discussed topics of late November, with users worried about the potential of the technology to be used by rich couples to create “designer babies” and “super humans”.

Quoting Stephen Hawking, several users explained that once such “superhuman” people appear, there will likely be a global upheaval, with significant political problems with “unimproved” humans, who will not be able to compete… Presumably, they will die, or become unimportant. There will be a race of self-managing beings who will improve at an ever-increasing rate.

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