A Chinese researcher said he developed the first-ever gene-edited babies, stirring up controversy

By Julie Mazziotta
November 26, 2018 12:19 PM
He Jiankui
Mark Schiefelbein/AP/REX/Shutterstock

A Chinese researcher said he developed the first-ever gene-edited babies — but the claim has yet to be substantiated.

He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, said that he altered the embryos of twin girls, born earlier this month, to make them resistant to HIV. Their father is HIV-positive.

The idea of altering embryos to create “designer babies” is banned in most countries, including the United States. Many people view genetic modification as unethical due to potential harmful ramifications for future populations.

He revealed the procedure during a gene editing conference in Hong Kong on Monday, as well as in an interview with the Associated Press.

He said he disabled a gene called CCR5 that restricts HIV from entering the body, and argued that the procedure will only be used to protect children from “lethal genetic diseases” — not to create a “designer baby.”

“For a few children, early gene surgery may be the only viable way to heal an inheritable disease and prevent a lifetime of suffering,” He said on his YouTube channel. “… Their parents don’t want a designer baby. Just a child who won’t suffer from a disease which medicine can now prevent. Gene surgery is and should remain a technology for healing. Enhancing IQ or selecting hair or eye color isn’t what a loving parent does. That should be banned.”

The university said He has been on leave since February, and that it was unaware of the procedure and will investigate his claims. There has been no independent corroboration, and the procedure has not been reviewed in a medical journal.

Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal, told the Associated Press it is “unconscionable,” and “an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible.”

And Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, told BBC News that, “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.”