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Scientist defends 'gene-edited' babies

And he claims another potential pregnancy is in its early stages

Mark Gould

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Chinese scientist who claims to have used the Crispr gene editing tool to create the world's first genetically edited babies has defended his work, and says that another genetically edited pregnancy is planned.

The BBC reports that He Jiankui told a genome summit in Hong Kong, that he was "proud" of altering the genes of newly born twin girls so they cannot contract HIV.

Prof He is reported to have told the conference that his employers, the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzen, who said they could not verify his claims, were not aware of the work as he had funded it himself. He told the conference that his work has been submitted to a scientific journal for review although he would not name the journal.

On Monday Prof He announced that he had used the Crispr “molecular scissors” technique to alter the DNA of embryos - twin girls - to prevent them from contracting HIV. The news created instant uproar with some commentators pronouncing it as monstrous as such editing techniques are banned in most countries.

On Wednesday, Prof He spoke at the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong for the first time about his work since the uproar.

He revealed that the twin girls - known as "Lulu" and "Nana" - were "born normal and healthy", adding that there were plans to monitor the twins over the next 18 years.

He explained that eight couples - comprised of HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers - had signed up voluntarily for the experiment; one couple later dropped out.

Prof He's claims were widely criticised by other scientists. Hundreds of Chinese scientists also signed a letter on social media condemning the research, saying they were "resolutely" opposed to it.

"If true, this experiment is monstrous. 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," Prof Julian Savulescu, an ethics expert at the University of Oxford earlier told the BBC.

"This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit."

Many countries, including the UK, have laws that prevent the use of genome editing in embryos for assisted reproduction in humans.

Scientists can do gene editing research on discarded IVF embryos, as long as they are destroyed immediately afterwards and not used to make a baby.

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