Although not yet independently verified or peer-reviewed, it’s still quite disturbing. The astounding claim of a Chinese scientist that he altered the DNA of human embryos to produce the world’s first “gene-edited” babies – a virtual revision of the blueprint of life – has sparked outrage among genetics experts worldwide.
In a video posted on YouTube last Nov. 26, Chinese scientist Dr. He Jiankui said the altered embryos have become human beings named Lulu and Nana, pseudonyms for Chinese twins he said were born a few weeks ago. The mother of the twins wasn’t identified to protect her privacy.
Dr. He, a professor at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, explained that gene-editing was performed to make the twin girls resistant to HIV.
“The gene surgery worked safely,” he proclaimed. “No gene was changed except the one to prevent HIV infection.”
The stunning revelation came on the eve of the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong where genetics specialists from all over the world gathered this week. As news spread, they condemned Dr. He’s work which they lamented was done “without maximum transparency and strict oversight.” They said preclinical research should have first been undertaken “to find risks and benefits,” and that genetic editing “should only be used in the absence of reasonable alternatives.”
Other expressions of outrage were swift. “It's unconscionable ... an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible," said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene-editing expert and editor of a journal on genetics.
"If true, this experiment is monstrous," exclaimed Julian Savulescu, director of the Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, who described as a “genetic Russian roulette” the work of the Chinese scientist.
"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,” Savulescu explained.
"This is far too premature," said Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."
A group of around 120 Chinese scientists also put out a joint statement on Weibo, China’s social media site, condemning the gene-editing work of their compatriot.
Saying it was “a huge blow to the reputation of Chinese biomedical research,” the group said "it's extremely unfair to Chinese scientists who are diligent, innovative and defending the bottom line of scientific ethics."
“Directly experimenting on human is nothing but crazy ... as soon as a living human is produced, no one could predict what kind of impact it will bring, as the modified inheritable substance will inevitably blend into human genome pool," the group of Chinese scientists said.
The gene-editing process was reportedly done during In Vitro Fertilization with a tool, called CRISPR-cas9, which made it possible “to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that's causing problems.”
According to the YouTube video, here’s what happened: “Prior to implanting the embryo, Dr. He and his team added the CRISPR/Cas9 tool to alter the embryo’s DNA. Out of the 16 embryos edited, 11 were used in six implant attempts before the twin babies were born.”
Such alteration or interference with human embryos is banned in many countries mainly because consequences arising from altered genes – which are passed on to future generations – are still unknown, especially its effects on immunity to other diseases.
While some believe gene editing can lead to revolutionary benefits to mankind such as eliminating diseases and correcting defects, many are disturbed by ethical repercussions especially when it’s considered akin to “playing God.”
And those not resigned to the truth that “God works in mysterious ways” have many questions, foremost of which are: Can our Divine Creator really get it wrong sometimes? Is it up to mere mortals to correct apparent mistakes?
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