The world's first gene-edited babies are here and people are furious
Many are calling the act of creating gene-edited babies "monstrous" and "unethical".
Children are often seen as God’s gift to us. Childbirth is also one of the most beautiful and natural things in the world. So what happens when people play God and “create” babies? Gene-edited babies, to be specific. That’s right — one Chinese scientist is claiming that he has created the world’s first gene-edited babies.
What are gene-edited babies?
Gene-edited babies, or designer babies, as some might call them, are babies whose genetic makeup is altered while in embryonic stage.
Why is this done? Gene-edited babies could potentially be free of genetically inherited diseases by having their DNA codes deleted or changed.
However, this is most illegal around the world. Experts have weighed in on this subject and raised concern that meddling with the genome of an embryo could cause harm not only to the individual but also future generations that inherit these same changes.
Scientists, however, have been allowed to do gene editing research on discarded IVF embryos, as long as they are destroyed immediately afterwards and not implanted into a womb.
But recently, a researcher claims that two gene-edited babies have been in fact, born.
China researcher claims gene-edited babies have been born
Professor He Jiankui is a lab scientist from Shenzhen, who was educated at Stanford University in the USA. He recently came out to say he used gene-editing tools to make twin baby girls, known as “Lulu” and “Nana”.
He said he had used the technology known as CRISPR, to knock out a gene called CCR5 in hopes of making the babies resistant to HIV should they ever come into contact with the virus.
He has even raised the possibility of a third child being born, saying that a separate woman was pregnant at an early stage with a modified embryo.
He says his work is more about creating children who would not suffer from diseases, rather than for vanity purposes.
The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen said it had been unaware of the research project and will now launch an investigation.
“This is scientific misconduct”
Though it may sound like a very noble cause, many have come out to call out this scientific misconduct on Professor He’s part.
Prof Julian Savulescu, an expert in ethics at the University of Oxford, said: “If true, this experiment is monstrous. The embryos were healthy – no known diseases.
“Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.
“This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit.”
Another expert in human genetics weighed in. Dr Yalda Jamshidi, of St George’s, University of London, said: “We know very little about the long term effects, and most people would agree that experimentation on humans for an avoidable condition just to improve our knowledge is morally and ethically unacceptable.
In response to the controversy, Professor He has come out to apologise, but defend his actions. “I understand my work will be controversial – but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them,” Professor He said.
Moreover, he’s even claimed that a third woman is pregnant with one of his gene-modified embroyos.
Ethical implications of gene-editing
The professor’s research has has put a global spotlight on gene-editing. Now, the entire industry is calling for a globally binding code of conduct.
One of the concerns raised was how the professor had directly contacted the subject through an HIV/AIDS volunteer group and got consent from the patient directly.
Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute says that an independent third party should have been involved to properly explain the risks and the benefits.
Another concern is surrounds the CCR5 gene, which scientists have said is crucial to the human immune system. Having the gene removed makes the the genetically-edited babies at higher risk for other diseases such as the West Nile virus and influenza.
Not to mention, now that the spotlight is on these two girls, it could lead to many psychological effects as they grow up. During the Hong Kong summit where Professor He was presenting the shocking news, one audience member asking whether He had thought about how the girls would see themselves and how they would be treated by society.
“I don’t know how to answer this question,” was Professor He’s reply.
It is also a general consensus that gene-editing is still in nascent stages and that the long-term effects are still unknown.