The Chinese government on Thursday ordered a temporary stop to all scientific research related to the editing of human genes, the latest condemnation following claims by by Chinese scientist He Jiankui that he had genetically altered twin babies.
The professor, who was educated at Stanford University in the United States and works from a lab in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, said the girls' DNA was modified using Crispr, a technique that allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision.
After the babies were born, the scientists tested their DNA to confirm the intended gene-editing occurred.
Gene editing is a potential fix for heritable diseases but it is extremely controversial because the changes would be passed down to future generations and could eventually affect the entire gene pool.
Southern University said in a statement it would be investigating the experiment, which appeared to have "seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct".
Scientists discovered in recent years a new way to edit genes that make up a person's DNA throughout the body. Overall, the Chinese researchers edited 16 of 22 embryos, out of which 11 embryos were used in six implant attempts, resulting in a single twin pregnancy. Experts said that this means that twin will not be protected from HIV infection, but rather might have slower disease progression if they did contract the virus (see this week's Comment).
"Our goal is to help ensure that human genome editing research be pursued responsibly", the committee said. "Moreover, if you can genetically engineer humans with traits that make them smarter, you can do the same to make them more docile", he said. "Science operates under a social licence - scientists work within limits defined by broader community concerns", said Darren Saunders, associate professor in the school of medical sciences at the University of New South Wales, in an emailed statement. His team targeted a specific gene, CCR5, which plays a role in HIV's spread to healthy cells.
The main objection to He's supposed gene-editing of Nana and Lulu boils down to one simple fact: messing with a human's genes is incredibly unsafe and inhumane, mostly because we don't fully understand how it works. China bans human cloning, but not specifically gene editing.
Meanwhile, the NPR reports Jiankui faces an investigation by a local medical ethics board to investigate whether his experiment broke Chinese laws or regulations. It also emphasized that its members believe germline editing is still too risky to be done at this time.
Dr. Kiran Musunuru at the University of Pennsylvania called it "unconscionable.an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible". The scientist, He Jiankui, announced his accomplishment at an global gathering of people in the field, rather than the more conventional method of publishing it in a peer-reviewed journal. People with only one copy of the CCR5 gene can still get HIV.