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The first genetically modified babies have been born in China

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A team of Chinese researchers have announced that they have modified the DNA of two newborn twins so that they are resistant to the HIV virus.  This declaration has left the scientific community mystified and divided. 

Are they the first genetically modified babies?

Have they really done it?  Have they really managed to create genetically modified babies for the first time in history?  This is what He Jiankui a researcher from the Chinese University of Shenzhen confirmed at a press interview in November. He stated that “two charming little Chinese twins, Lulu and Nana, were born a few weeks ago and are in excellent health, to the great joy of their parents Grace and Mark.

More resistant to HIV virus

The researchers explained that they have modified the DNA of the twins by using the CRISPR method. This method allows pieces of DNA to be cut, therefore modifying the affected genomes.  However this method has never been used on human embryos before being transferred into the woman’s uterus by way of an in vitro fertilisation. According to the researcher, this is now something that has been successfully carried out. The idea consisted of modifying the DNA of the two babies so as to make them more resistant to the HIV virus. This announcement can unfortunately not be verified as it wasn’t carried out as an official publication in a scientific review.

Crispr-Cas9 ciseaux génétiques
Credits : Flickr

The announcement sparks debate

In China the birth of the first genetically modified humans is considered a medical achievement. He Jiankui explains that he has set an example for others to follow but “society will decide if it something they want to do.”  Six other HIV-positive couples also signed up to the same experiment.  The general idea consisted of deactivating the gene called CCR5 a type of protein carrier allowing the HIV virus to enter into the cells.  However there is a lot of debate and people against this practice as they fear it is a slippery slope which will lead to a new type of eugenics.

Doctor Kiran Musunuru, expert in Genetics at the University of Pennsylvania, judges it to be “unacceptable“, highlighting the experiment as “immoral” from an ethical point of view.   Eric Tropol, director of Scripps Research Translational Institute, in California, also deems it to be in his opinion, “much too early.”  However on the other hand, George Church a renowned geneticist from Harvard University has defended any attempts to modify HIV genetics, calling it a “real and growing menace for public health.”

Britain paves the way

Remember that last July, Nuffield Council of Bioethics, an British bioethics organisation, also published a controversial report. This report explained that in certain circumstances it could be acceptable from an ethical point of view to genetically modify humans.  If this is the case, Britain could pave the way for genetically modified babies in the future.  The report, however, did note that genetic modification could only be carried out if the physical and social well-being of the people genetically modified were really protected and only if the modifications improved the person’s health.


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