Chinese researcher He Jiankui said Monday that he had in vitro fertilization with modified genes that gave birth to twins resistant to the AIDS virus, an announcement that provoked ethical criticism for an act considered “dangerous” and “irresponsible.” The scientist and professor at the University of Shenzhen in southern China, posted on YouTube a video announcing the birth a few weeks ago of two twins whose DNA was modified to be resistant to the AIDS virus. He specified that the father is HIV positive.
The researcher, trained at Stanford in the United States and who runs a specialized laboratory in the genome in Shenzhen, explained that he used the Crispr-Cas9 technique, called “genetic scissors”, that allows removing and replacing unwanted parts of the genome, as if a lack in a computer will be.
The babies, called “Lula” and “Nana”, were born by in vitro fertilization of a modified embryo before being implanted in the uterus of the mother. Just after injecting the husband’s sperm into the ovule, an embryologist injected a Crispr-Cas9 protein to modify a gene to protect the girls from a future HIV infection. To achieve its goal, he claims to have “deactivated” the CCR5 gene, which forms a protein that allows HIV to enter a cell and that in practice supposes an improvement of DNA. This self-proclaimed medical event has not yet been verified independently and the results of the Chinese team have not been published in a scientific journal.
The controversy began when specialized publications such as the American magazine MIT Technology Review echoed the study of the scientist He Jiankui, who began yesterday to broadcast videos on YouTube in which he claimed to have modified the genes of twins and whose university will convene international experts to investigate this incident, which is a serious violation of the ethics and academic standards, and where they also claim that the Government itself will initiate an investigation and take appropriate measures.
Globally, the journal Nature also joined the debate today and in an article argues that the announcement has caused “outrage” among the international scientific community and that, if true, “would represent a significant leap in the use of the modification of the human genome”. Nature points out that this type of tool has only been used so far to study its benefit in the elimination of disease-causing mutations, and adds that the scientific community “has been asking for a long time” the creation of ethical guidelines, long before that a case like this would arise.
In 2016, a group of Chinese scientists became pioneers in using in humans, in particular with patients with lung cancer, the genetic modification technology CRISPR, as reported by the journal Nature. However, scientists in the United Kingdom have discovered that CRISPR gene editing technology can cause more damage to cells than was previously believed, according to a study published this year by the same journal.