World’s First Genetically Modified Babies Created, Chinese Scientists Claim

He, who studied at Rice University in Texas and Stanford University in California, is expected to speak at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on Wednesday where further evidence may be presented.

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.

"First, I must apologize that this result was leaked unexpectedly", He told some 700 attendees.

At the conference in Hong Kong, He defended himself against a slew of incredulous questions.

Au said that, while He's presentation offered the public more information about his gene editing research, he did not disclose how many such studies he had done in total.

The Chair of the Summit, Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, spoke from the floor after the panel session.

In the United Kingdom and many other countries it is illegal to create genetically modified babies, and scientists in the field have reached a broad consensus that it would be deeply unethical to try. "We haven't found that Chinese people are able to go without the CCR5 [gene] entirely", Zhang told iscientists, a well-known WeMedia account focusing on popular science.

"I must apologise that this result was leaked unexpectedly", he said. "Conducting direct human experiments can only be described as insane", the scientists said in their letter, a copy of which was posted by the Chinese news website the Paper.

Alta Charo, a highly respected University of Wisconsin bioethicist who helped organize the summit, issued an even harsher critique of He's work, calling it "misguided, premature, unnecessary and largely useless".

The mother of the babies, who has not been identified, began with a standard IVF pregnancy. "We also do not need gene editing to ensure it isn't passed on to offspring", she said. "In fact there is not only very little chance these babies would be in need of a benefit, given their low risk, but there is no way to evaluate if this indeed conferred any benefit".

The reaction from much of the scientific community was one of shock. "We know there will be some negatives but we also don't dare - because there will be negatives - to avoid technologies or advancements".

The news spread like wildfire and garnered huge criticism from scientists for meddling with embryos using technology.

In addition, Annas wrote, He focused on "a disease (susceptibility to HIV infection) that virtually no one things should be "cured" by gene editing (since it is both preventable and treatable by current practices)".

"The lack of transparency and disregard for risk are deeply concerning", Doudna said.

Meanwhile, more American scientists said they had contact with He and were aware of or suspected what he was doing. Feng Zhang, one of the inventors of CRISPR editing, has called for a global moratorium on using the technology to create gene-edited babies. In one twin, all of her cells were edited so as to knock out the CCR5 gene; in the other, only some cells were.

"There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals: For example, protected sex. [An] HIV vaccine is not available", he said.

"The medical ethics review exists in the name only".

A spokesman for He said he has been on leave from teaching since early this year but remains on the faculty and has a lab at the university.

China's National Health Commission ordered an "immediate investigation", the official Xinhua news agency reported, while the Shenzhen hospital meant to have approved the research denied its involvement.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology that allows scientists to essentially cut and paste DNA, raising hope of genetic fixes for disease, but there are concerns about safety and ethics. Designer babies are desirable by definition and if there's enough demand, the scientific marketplace will find a way to meet it.

The MIT Technology Review explains that Chinese researchers first modified embryos' genes in a lab dish in 2015 using the gene-editing tool CRISPR-cas9, but He's experiments would mark the first case of a successful birth from such experiments, if true.

Vanessa Coleman

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