If a Chinese scientist’s claim to have helped create humans with edited genes for the first time is verified, the names of Lulu and Nana might one day be as famous as Louise Brown, the first test tube baby.
But right now, that’s a big “if.” The scientist, He Jiankui, announced his accomplishment at an international gathering of people in the field, rather than the more conventional method of publishing it in a peer-reviewed journal.
“Two beautiful little Chinese girls name Lulu and Nana came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago,” He (pronounced like “her,” but with a guttural h and silent r) proclaimed in aposted online.
He, who runs a lab at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, said he used the powerful gene-editing tool known as CRISPR, to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering offspring resistant to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The gene editing took place during an IVF procedure, but before the embryo was implanted in the mother’s womb. The father who provided the sperm is HIV-positive.
“When Lulu and Nana were just a single cell, this surgery removed a doorway through which HIV enter to infect people,” He, who studied at Stanford University and Rice University, said in the video.
CRISPR is cheap and easy to deploy, but scientists are still debating the ethics of using it in human beings. That subject, in fact, is the topic of the Hong Kong gathering at which He made his announcement, the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing.
One reason for the caution is that changes to an embryo would be inherited by future generations and could eventually affect the entire gene pool and that it is risky.
“The genetic editing of a speck-size human embryo carries significant risks, including the risks of introducing unwanted mutations or yielding a baby whose body is composed of some edited and some unedited cells,” says the MIT Technology Review.
But the announcement drew widespread condemnation, including one scientist who deemed it “monstrous.”
Julian Savulescu, an expert in ethics at the University of Oxford, told the BBC, “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.
“This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit,” Savulescu said.
A CRISPR pioneer at MIT, Feng Zhang, agreed that the procedure was not even necessary and that it may leave a person even more at risk to disease.
“Although I appreciate the global threat posed by HIV, at this stage, the risks of editing embryos to knock out CCR5 seem to outweigh the potential benefits,” he said, according to NPR. Zhang noted that knocking out the CCR5 gene “will likely render a person much more susceptible for West Nile Virus.”