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Claims of genetically altered babies should be treated with caution



Early on Monday morning, reports began circulating of a major breakthrough in China. Thanks to the marvels of gene editing, twin girls had apparently been born with a fantastic superpower: they were naturally resistant to HIV

Depending on your position this result may sound either hugely exciting or downright terrifying Gene editing (and "designer babies") is a fascinating frontier in scientific research, but one with unpleasant echoes of the horrors of eugenics and the dystopian vision of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

However, despite the earnest interviews in which Professor He Jiankui and his collaborators have described their work, for now, their claims must be taken with a big fistful of salt.

The scientists say the babies created by their experiments have had their genomes tweaked so that they can not contract HIV, although only in one of the twins did the procedure provide complete protection by the target gene of both copies. Their motivation was that the goal was to produce children who were not affected by this life-changing disease, which is about 37 million people around the world.

However, without publication in an academic journal and the resulting scientific scrutiny, we should probably withhold judgment on the veracity of their claims.

Indeed, controversial fields like gene editing and cloning have been attracting charlatans and egotists who are happy to make bold statements that turn out to be unsupported by scientific evidence.

Chief among these is the South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk. Once considered a pioneer in stem cell research, he suffered a spectacular fall from grace in 2005 when it emerged that he had faked the creation of the world's first cloned human embryos.

Other self-styled mavericks who have courted the press while their claims with data include Severino Antinori, who made wild claims about his success in cloning humans, and infamous "head transplant" pioneer Sergio Canavero.

The response of the scientific community to the Chinese team's experiment was swift, and fairly unified in consigning Professor He to the same category as these self-styled mavericks. While a few tentatively welcomed the results, with warnings, most described the announcement as "irresponsible" and "designed to provoke maximum controversy and shock value" while the evidence of the team's positive results remained (for now) non-existent.

That does not mean that the experiments are in realm of science fiction, however. Gene expression undeniably can be carried out on humans and human embryos. Only last year a team from the Francis Crick Institute in London changed human embryos for the first time in the UK, but crucially these cells were confined to a laboratory – they were not implanted in surrogate mothers

By contrast, China has emerged as something of a wild west when it comes to gene editing. Unhampered by ethical restrictions that are preventing researchers in Europe and the US ploughing ahead with this science, Chinese scientists are the ones leading the way (for good or ill).

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There are reports of dozens of cancer and HIV patients in Chinese hospitals having their cells genetically engineered, and in this context the birth of these twins seems like an inevitable next logical step. The problem is that while the gene editing tools have proved a fantastic scientific innovation, scientists are still able to guarantee safety. Some have suggested that they were not allowed to treat untreatable genetic diseases, but HIV – with a wealth of preventative measures and drugs for treatment –

It remains to be seen whether Professor He's claims have any basis whatsoever, but with so many unknowns about the long-term impacts and side effects of this technology, there are plenty who say their claims (and his actions) are either morally questionable either way .


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