Experiments to gene-edit babies are 'criminally reckless,' says Stanford bio-ethicist 

Key Points
  • A Chinese researcher claims that twin girls born last month are the first genetically modified humans. 
  • Many scientists and ethicists say they are horrified by these experiments, if they happened. 
  • "I unequivocally condemn the experiment," said well-known Stanford bio-ethicist Hank Greely.
Stephanie Rausser | Getty Images

Scientists in China have created the first genetically modified humans, according to media reports on Sunday.

The research was first spotted by MIT's Technology Review, citing medical research published in a Chinese clinical trial registry led by HeJiankui of Shenzhen. He, the researcher, later told the Associated Press that his team modified embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, resulting in the birth of twin girls called Lulu and Nana.

If this experiment happened, that's a very big deal.

And not in a good way. Most scientists and bio-ethicists are strongly against it, believing that the science and ethical framework around it are far too premature and it's likely to do more harm than good.

"This is criminally reckless and I unequivocally condemn the experiment," said Hank Greely, director of the center for law and the biosciences at Stanford University. "I was shocked and upset last night when I read the news."

Greely suggested the story could be overblown, as the research has not been independently verified or published in a journal. But the evidence is starting to pile up that the researchers did, in fact, attempt to edit human embryos in a lab.

After the story broke, He released a video detailing plans to modify genes in such a way that would prevent a potential infection with HIV, the AIDS virus. A report from the Associated Press described "exclusive interviews" with He about the work to alter the embryos of seven couples.

The twins "came crying into this world as healthy as any other babies," He said in the video, which you can watch below.

Scientists now have powerful tools at their disposal to edit genes, thanks to an invention called CRISPR-case9. CRISPR, and other genome-editing tools like it, provide a faster, cheaper and more reliable way of editing DNA for a wide range of potential applications.

Among the most controversial would be using CRISPR to gene-edit human embryos. In recent years, most countries, including the U.S., have made steps to regulate this kind of research.

The near-term consequence of this kind of research could be "sick babies, disabled babies, dead babies," said Greely.

Some high-profile critics, including Harvard University's well-known geneticist George Church, shared concerns with the AP about the method that the researchers in China used to edit the embryos, as it appears that the HIV infection can still occur if only certain cells were altered.

In the long-run, Greely argued, it could dampen other types of research into using CRISPR for non-reproductive uses.

"Ultimately, I wish the researchers didn't do it," he said. "I hope they didn't."

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