Claim About World's First Gene-Edited Babies Triggers Questions, Condemnation

A unproven claim about the creation of the world's first genetically edited babies has been met with skepticism and condemnation.

He Jiankui, Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, resulting in a pregnancy that led to twin girls born this month, the Associated Press reported.

The objective was to give the babies the ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to He, who did not reveal the identity of the parents, where they live, or where the research was conducted.

The claim has not been independently confirmed and has not been published in a journal, where it would be reviewed by other experts. He revealed it Monday to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing scheduled to begin in Hong Kong Tuesday, and in earlier interviews with the AP.

He has two genetics companies and has applied for patents on his embryo gene editing methods.

This type of gene editing is not allowed in the United States because the DNA changes can affect future generations and there is risk of damage to other genes. A number of scientists condemned He's research, and some labeled it human experimentation.

It's "unconscionable ... an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible," Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal, told the AP.

"This is far too premature," said Dr. Eric Topol, heads of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."

But attempting gene editing to protect against HIV is "justifiable," because it's "a major and growing public health threat," Harvard University geneticist George Church, told the AP.

Several scientists who reviewed materials that He provided to the AP said there is not enough data to determine if the gene editing was effective or safe.

They also said it appears that the gene editing was incomplete and that at least one twin seems to have a patchwork of cells with various genetic changes.

"It's almost like not editing at all" if only some of particular cells were changed, because HIV infection can still occur, Church said.

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