Twin Chinese newborns, Lulu and Nana, are reported to be the first genome-edited babies. Gene editing is banned in China as well as most other countries. Many scientists are calling the work unethical. The Chinese government says He Jianku, the researcher who conducted the genome editing, has violated their laws and has halted his work.
After the egg was fertilized by the sperm but while it was still a single cell, a protein was inserted with instructions. The embryo was edited to make the cells impervious to HIV infection. The babies are healthy and the editing is claimed as successful, altering only the targeted gene and leaving the rest of the babies’ DNA intact. Independent testing of the DNA has not been conducted yet and the research has also not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
An argument against embryo editing to prevent HIV infection is that there are ways to use genetics to prevent transmission of HIV without gene-editing an embryo. Another complaint is that the CCR5 gene targeted in the embryos is not even the way some HIV enters cells, who use CXCR4 instead, so the twins are not completely resistant. Scientists condemn the fact that healthy children have been exposed to gene editing without any appreciable benefit or need and also without any prior research into the possible negative effects. It should be noted that the father was HIV positive and the mother was not so there was no risk of transmission anyways. Babies born to HIV positive mothers can also be delivered via Cesarean to further the argument that this was not a good use of science. He countered that his hope was to prevent the babies from ever contracting HIV.
It is reported that He Jianku performed this work without the permission of the university he is employed at.
The Southern University of Science and Technology requires scientific research to abide by national laws and regulations and to respect and comply with international academic ethics and academic standards.
One positive result of this biomedical research is that it shows how urgently standards of ethical limits are needed that would apply globally to gene editing. The timing is also good because an international summit just occurred in Hong Kong from November 27th to the 29th whose key goal was to develop consensus on genome editing and this will further compel them to create guidelines. As of yet, there is only broad support for genome editing when it alters disease-causing mutations.
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Reality Changing Observations:
Q1. Was this a good use of gene editing? Why or why not?
Q2. What aspects of a person do you think are acceptable for gene editing?
Q3. What concerns are there concerning informed consent of the embryo and future generations as it pertains to gene editing?