November 26, 2018 – 19:44
A Chinese man claims to have changed several embryos in the treatment of fertility, of which twins have already been born. But there is caution in the scientific community.
A Chinese researcher says he has helped create the first genetically engineered twin babies born this month, whose DNA says they have been altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the original life project.
If true, it would be a great leap for science with deep ethical implications.
An American scientist said he was involved in a genetic modification in China that is banned in the United States because DNA changes can be passed on to future generations and there is a risk of damage to other genes.
Many scientists believe it is too risky to try and some have condemned that the Chinese report is equivalent to experimenting with humans.
Reject future HIV infection
Researcher He Jiankui, from Shenzhen, said he had changed the embryos for seven couples during the treatment of fertility and has been pregnant. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent hereditary illness, but to try to give a characteristic that few people have in a natural way: the ability to resist an HIV infection in the future, the virus that causes AIDS.
He noted that participating parents refused to be identified or interviewed and would not reveal where they lived or where the job was done.
This has not yet been confirmed by science
No one affirmed the claim itself, nor was it published in a magazine where it would be examined by other experts. He announced on Monday his work in Hong Kong, one of the organizers of an international conference on genetic editing, which will begin on Tuesday, and previously in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.
"I feel a strong responsibility not only to do something for the first time, but also to give an example," he told AP. "Society will decide what to do next" regarding the authorization or prohibition of such scientific progress.
More than 120 Chinese scientists have condemned his colleague Jiankui's statement about the birth of two genetically modified babies to avoid HIV infection in an open letter stating that experimenting with humans is "madness" and implies serious potential consequences.
The text was signed by scientists from various institutions, including the Qinhua, Beijing and Fudan universities, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"These irreversible transformations of human genetic material, which are very uncertain in science, will inevitably be mixed into the human genetic group," the DPA's letter said.
Researchers say that "born babies may be healthy for a certain period of time, but the risks and potential harm to the human group (…) are immeasurable."
They also regretted that the experiment was a "severe blow to China's global reputation" and asked the inspection bodies to act as soon as possible and investigate the case.
"Pandora's box is open and we may have the opportunity to close it before the damage is irreparable," they warned.
A well-known geneticist, George Church at Harvard University, however, protects the HIV genetic testing experience, which he describes as "a growing and important threat to public health."
"I think this is justified," the Church said.
In recent years, scientists have found a relatively simple way to edit the genes, the DNA strands that drive the body. The tool, called CRISPR-cas9, allows DNA operations to provide the necessary gene or ban one that causes problems.
One of the discoverers of the CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing Technique, American Jennifer Dudina, also criticized Hey's announcement.
"If confirmed, this work is a break from safeguards and a transparent approach to the application of the CRISPR-Cas9 global scientific community," said Doudna, a professor of chemistry, molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley.
Dudna said his research has not yet been published or explored by the scientific community.
The researcher participates in Hong Kong at the summit of the human genome edition, which also plans to attend.
If a scientific analysis confirms this work, it will confirm the "urgent need to restrict the use of genetic editing in human embryos to scenarios where there is a clear medical need that is not covered and where another therapeutic approach is not feasible," he said .
The CRISPR-Cas9 mechanism has been known for almost three decades, and in 2003, the Spanish microbiologist Francisco Martínez Mojica discovered that what micro-organisms use to protect, break down genetic material from viruses and include this material in its own DNA.
The discovery of Moggia is the reason for Dudne and French researcher Emanuel Charpentier, years later, to artificially reproduce the system and to propose in 2012 that it be used to modify precisely the genome as well as the human beings.