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Alleged HIV-Resistant Newborns Spark Controversial Conversation About Gene-editing

Alleged HIV-Resistant Newborns Spark Controversial Conversation About Gene-editing

Alleged HIV-Resistant Newborns Spark Controversial Conversation About Gene-editing

While the study is currently unconfirmed, bioethicists are deeply concerned about the ramifications this could have on the scientific community.

In what would be one of the most controversial breakthroughs since the discovery on genetics, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claims to have used human embryos modified with gene-editing to prevent the transmission of HIV to a pair of newly born twin girls.

According to a report by the Associated Press, Dr. He claims to have modified the CCR5 gene, which enables HIV to enter cells in the body. Following the birth of the twins, the girls underwent genetic testing to show that the gene-editing technique worked safely.

The research community is suspect of the results, which have yet to be published in a peer reviewed paper or corroborated by any outside labs. According to AP scientists who have reviewed some of the materials say the "tests so far are insufficient to say the editing worked or to rule out harm." However, those familiar with Dr. He's work say it is entirely possibly. They're also terrified what this could mean for the scientific community.

The bioethics of gene-editing has remained a major concern for researchers, which is why it's been outlawed the United States and many other countries. Even in China, where it is legal, the Southern University of Science is distancing themselves from Dr. He. claiming they had no knowledge of his work.

The university issued a statement saying they were "deeply shocked" by the experiment and that He has been on unpaid leave from the university.

The big fear with gene-editing is that it could lead to "designer babies," where parents edit the genes of their future children to make them smarter, taller, etc. If a "gay gene" was found, parents could choose to edit the gene, forcing their children to be straight. Also, the side effects of this sort of change are unknown.

"If true, this amounts to unethical and reckless experimentation on human beings, and a grave abuse of human rights," said Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a genetic watchdog group. "Throwing open the door to a society of genetic haves and have-nots undermines our chances for a fair and just future."

The CRISPR technique used for gene-editing is still it its nascent stages and could accidentally create genetic mutations, as a gene can be responsible for more than one characteristic.

"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," wrote Feng Zhang, a CRISPR expert at MIT. Zhang noted that knocking out the CCR5 gene "will likely render a person much more susceptible for West Nile Virus."

Still, this potentially could be a huge breakthrough in the fight against HIV, and He seems unphased by the backlash.

"I understand my work will be controversial," He said. "But I believe families need this technology. And I am willing to take the criticism for them."


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