By Lila Thulin
The announcement from Chinese researcher He Jiankui claiming to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies—twins whose genomes were altered, as embryos, using CRISPR technology—shook the scientific world and prompted a maelstrom of ethical controversy. The experiment, if its outcome is verified by peer review, would certainly take CRISPR use in humans further than it’s gone before. But where, exactly, do the CRISPR babies stand in the swiftly-moving field of genetic editing?
He’s work (which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal or independently verified) involved creating embryos from a healthy mother and HIV-positive father and applying the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to those embryos to remove the CCR5 gene, which allows HIV to enter cells. Those CRISPR-modified embryos led to a pregnancy and eventually, the birth of twin girls named Lulu and Nana. One of the children is said to lack both functional copies of the CCR5 gene, which would prevent her from ever contracting HIV, while the other has one functional copy, meaning she could still possibly contract the virus.
Lulu and Nana’s birth would certainly represent a first in the budding field of gene editing. But Kiran Musunuru, a cardiologist and geneticist at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine who reviewed a preliminary manuscript by He’s team for the Associated Press, says He’s announcement “does not represent in any way a scientific advance” because “there was nothing preventing previous researchers who edited human embryos from doing the same, except their own ethics and morals.”
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