Reports out of China suggest first human gene-edited babies have been born

Enlarge / He Jiankui, the scientist who has claimed to have led an effort to gene-edit humans.

On Sunday, news reports indicated that the first gene-edited human babies had been born in China. As of right now, the information on what, exactly, has been accomplished is confusing. The scientist behind the announcement has made a variety of claims but has not submitted his data to the community in order for his claims to be verified. But even in its current state, the announcement has set off a firestorm of criticism within the scientific and ethics communities. Most scientists feel that the technology isn’t ready for use in humans and that there are better ways to deal with the problem the work was addressing: HIV infection.

Editing genes

The most complete report we currently have comes from the Associated Press. Its reporters talked to the researcher behind the announcement, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, China, in advance of his public announcement. That public announcement came at the start of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, taking place this week in Hong Kong. The summit is intended to help work out the “science, application, ethics, and governance of human genome editing,” but He apparently chose to go ahead in advance of those being settled.

He is expected to present more details of his work on Wednesday, but it’s clear that he used biotechnology called CRISPR to perform the gene editing. CRISPR is a system that evolved in bacteria to protect them from viruses by allowing them to recognize and cut viral DNA. By changing part of the CRISPR system, it’s possible to direct it to cut an arbitrary DNA sequence. That can include sequences within the human genome.

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