Controversy Erupts Over Possible Gene-Edited Babies

The scientific community is in an uproar over claims from a Chinese researcher that he had successfully edited the genes of two babies, twin girls born weeks ago. If true, it would be a world-first, and the claim has re-ignited the ethical debate over creating designer kids using state-of-the-art genetic editing tools.

He Jankui, a Stanford and Rice educated scientist at China's Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, [told]( the Associate Press he has altered embryos for seven couples, with one pregnancy so far.

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Whether he went a step or three too far in doing so is being hotly debated. Such a procedure would be banned in the U.S. and Europe, and even in China it's not clear whether He broke the law. The university claims it was unaware of He's project and is investigating.

The goal of He's research is undeniably desirable, which has further complicated the ethical debate.

At the heart of it, He just wanted to prevent kids from being susceptible to HIV, so he eliminated the gene responsible for allowing HIV to enter cells. Isn't it only natural for parents to want to protect their kids from contracting terrible diseases?

China has a growing problem with HIV and AIDS, too, and people have been known to lose their jobs after their employers found out they were carrying the virus.

But, even though He's goals are noble, there are still some serious concerns.

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We're not about to drift off to the island of Dr. Moreau, but one major concern is that the edited genes can be passed down to future generations, and nobody is entirely sure how that will play out. There could easily be unintended consequences and mutations down the line, impacting future generations.

Other scientists have also pointed out that editing these particular genes isn't absolutely necessary.

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Dr. Dusko Ilic, a stem cell science expert at King's College London told the BBC that when HIV is treated and kept under control, there's little risk of a parent passing along to a child.

What's more, the gene editing techniques used by He and his team aren't cheap, making them harder for the portion of China's population most vulnerable to HIV to access.

As far as anyone knows, the embryos used in He's research were perfectly healthy, so it's not like the genes were edited to correct anything.

As Oxford professor Julian Savulescu told the BBC, "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."

And then there's the question of whether He's research actually resulted in a live birth, as he claims, or not.

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Nobody has been able to independently verify He's research so far. Apart from a few medical documents posted online in China, no papers have been published, and the babies and their parents remain anonymous.

Fyodor Urnov, a gene-editing scientist at Seattle's Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences, reviewed those medical documents and told MIT's Tech Review that "this effort aims to produce a human," for what it's worth.

On the other hand, some liken He's research to the development of an HIV vaccine.

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In fact, that's how he referred to his work on consent forms to the research's participants. He's adviser at Rice, Michael Deem, still works closely with him and told the Associated Press that a vaccine "might be a layman's way of describing" the gene editing.

For his part, he says the research is real and the babies were born. "I met the parents. I was there for the informed consent of the parents."

An argument could be made that He's research is only re-creating and re-distibuting something that evolution has already done.

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A natural mutation that turns off the gene He edited out does exist, and it's more common in Northern Europe, so his research doesn't do something completely unnatural.

But although He sees his work as beneficial to the greater good, opposition has been lining up against him as the world learns more.

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A group of 100 Chinese scientists even came together to issue a statement soundly denouncing He's work, saying "The Pandora's Box has been opened. We need to close it before we lose our last chance. We as biomedical researchers strongly oppose and condemn any attempts on editing human embryo genes without scrutiny on ethics and safety."

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