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Researcher Claims First Gene-Edited Infants

A Chinese researcher has claimed to have genetically modified human infants, according to MIT's Technology Review.

The Southern University of Science and Technology's He Jiankui tells the Associated Press that he altered the genomes of embryos for seven couples that were undergoing fertility treatments. This led to one pregnancy and the recent birth of twin girls, He tells the AP. In particular, He used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool to disable the embryos' CCR5 gene to make the infants immune to HIV infection. The fathers were all HIV-positive, it says. 

The AP notes that it was unable to independently confirm He's claims and that the work has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. He has, Stat News adds, uploaded a promotional video to YouTube in which he says the baby girls are healthy and calls "gene surgery" another IVF tool that can prevent "a lifetime of suffering."

"I feel a strong responsibility that it's not just to make a first, but also make it an example," He tells the AP. "Society will decide what to do next."

This claim of genetically modifying humans has been met with consternation, Tech Review says.

The University of Sydney's Greg Neely tells New Scientist that it is unclear what the consequences of shutting off CCR5 gene in every cell may be. "There is no pressing need for this — it's totally inappropriate," Neely says. 

"This is far too premature," adds the Scripps Research Translational Institute's Eric Topol at the AP. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."

Others, though, view the work as a game-changer. "This event might be analogous to Louise Brown in 1978," Harvard Medical School's George Church tells NPR in an email. "Both anecdotal — yet healthy baby girls can have an impact."

However, University of California, Berkeley's Jennifer Doudna, the CRISPR researcher and organizer of a meeting on gene editing that is to begin this week in Hong Kong, says at NPR that this claim "reinforces the urgent need to confine the use of gene-editing in human embryos to settings where there's a clear unmet medical need and where there's no alternative viable approach."

Likewise, CRISPR researcher Feng Zhang from the Broad Institute tells Tech Review in a statement that "[g]iven the current state of the technology, I am in favor of a moratorium on implantation of edited embryos."

Southern University issued a press release in which it says He has been on unpaid leave and says this work "seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct." It further calls upon the international community to investigate.