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Genetically Engineered Baby Claim Met with Investigations and Doubt

03 Décembre 2018

If a Chinese scientist's claim to have helped create humans with edited genes for the first time is verified, the names of Lulu and Nana might one day be as famous as Louise Brown, the first test tube baby.

These babies are naturally immune to HIV, the researchers say.

The controversial experiment, publicised through the media and videos posted online by He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China, was criticised by many scientists worldwide as premature and called "rogue human experimentation".

CRISPR, first described in 2012, gives scientists the most precise and effective way to edit the human genome by snipping out offending mutations or genes and either allowing the genome to fix itself or providing researchers with the ability to insert new genetic material to correct disease genes.

Gene editing for reproductive purposes might be considered in the future "but only when there is compelling medical need", with clear understanding of risks and benefits, and certain other conditions, said Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, one of the conference sponsors.

Scientists discovered in recent years a new way to edit genes that make up a person's DNA throughout the body. Eleven edited embryos were then used in six implant attempts before one of the couples were able to achieve the twin pregnancy, He said. The school placed He on leave and said they'd be investigating the work conducted in the lab. Editing sperm or embryos is different - the changes can be inherited.

"Right after sending her husband's sperm into her egg, an embryologist also sent in CRISPR/Cas9 protein and instructions to perform a gene surgery meant to protect the girls from future HIV infection", he said.

A gene editing technology called CRISPR-cas9 was used to alter multiple embryos, He said in the original AP report, but this was the only successful pregnancy.

An American scientist has also reportedly taken part in the experiment in China.

The gene CCR5 codes for a protein that allows HIV to enter and infect a cell. The controversial gene-editing, which is banned in most countries, unsurprisingly led to worldwide outcry. One first-in-human study is testing intravenous infusion of gene-editing ingredients to fight a killer metabolic disease.

Dr He Jiankui revealed the possible pregnancy while making his first public comments about his scandal-hit work at an worldwide conference in Hong Kong.

"Grossly premature and deeply unethical", is how noted US bioethicist Henry Greely of Stanford University characterized the claim. It said: "The university was deeply shocked by this event and has taken immediate action to reach Dr Jiankui He for clarification.' It added that it would be calling global experts to form an independent committee to investigate".

"If this was done to avoid HIV infection, there are alternative ways to prevent infection that are already effective", Doudna says, such as "washing" the sperm of infected sperm donors to eliminate HIV.

So far, Jiankui has not submitted the details of his research to the scientific community for peer review. "We set out stringent criteria that would need to be met" to justify embryo editing, he said.

The organizing committee of the conference has released a statement about the matter, calling for a forum on this type of research and encouraging scientific groups to formulate guidelines to govern its use.

Genetically Engineered Baby Claim Met with Investigations and Doubt