China halts work by team on gene-edited babies

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A Chinese scientist triggered alarm, shock and confusion across the scientific community today with the claim that he had edited the DNA of human embryos to create twin baby girls.

He Jiankui says he altered the DNA of twin girls born earlier this month to make them resistant to HIV infection.

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.

This is because it is said that DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Scientists discovered in recent years a new way to edit genes that make up a person's DNA throughout the body.

The MIT Technology Review explains that Chinese researchers first modified embryos' genes in a lab dish in 2015 using the gene-editing tool CRISPR-cas9, but He's experiments would mark the first case of a successful birth from such experiments, if true.

Tests suggest that one twin had both copies of the altered gene and the other twin had just one altered copy. Many scientists working in genetics say they believe such experimentation is risky. Many scientists condemned He for violating fundamental human ethics. In a statement, his host university said that the trial occurred while he was on leave, and didn't happen at their campus. It forms something of a protein doorway which allows HIV to enter a cell, eventually reproduces rapidly and take over the immune system.

Although gene editing on humans is prohibited in most countries (China has banned cloning but not human embryo gene editing specifically), He and colleagues seem nevertheless bent on experimenting with gene editing and human cells.

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Professor Joyce Harper, professor in genetics and human embryology at London's UCL, said: "Today's report of genome editing human embryos for resistance to HIV is premature, unsafe and irresponsible".

He chose to announce his experiment one day ahead of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing to be held in Hong Kong - a three-day summit co-hosted by the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine.

"Grossly premature and deeply unethical", is how noted US bioethicist Henry Greely of Stanford University characterized the claim.

It's "unconscionable.an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible", said Dr Kiran Musunuru, a gene-editing expert from the University of Pennsylvania. The researcher brought the project to light with the AP and an organizer of a major gene-editing conference.

Prof He also said that the study had been submitted to a scientific journal for review, though he did not name the journal. In the research, says JK, 16 out of 22 embryos were edited.

However, the research work has attracted huge criticism from the scientific communities in China as well as from around the world, forcing the Chinese government to order an investigation into the alleged delivery of the gene-edited babies.

'First, we would have expected to see a lot more research into the safety and efficacy of genome editing in human embryos, before attempting to achieve a pregnancy, ' she said.

Controversially, in the study being discussed, the edit does not cure a pre-existing disease, and we already have existing alternatives to prevent HIV infection and limit its clinical progression to AIDS.

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