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Headline Of The Week: Chinese Scientist is Genetically Modifying Babies

By Sarah Moran 30 November 2018
Another day, another series of nauseating news. We get it, it’s difficult to keep up with all the information out there. Sometimes you watch the news and it feels like the world is spiralling out of control (kind of like a bad hangover) and you end up walking away from the TV with a banging headache. In the spirit of public enlightenment, we bring you our weekly fun news column, where we give you the craziest international, national, or local headline from the past week — that you have likely overlooked.

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Co-inventor of the cut-and-paste gene-editing tool CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, once said, “I’ve mentally prepared myself for the day when I open my inbox or answer my phone and realize that somebody’s going to be announcing the first CRISPR baby.”  Well, dear readers, that day has finally come. Stanford and Rice University trained Chinese biomedical researcher, He Jiankui, caused international uproar this week when news that he had allegedly altered the DNA of embryos using gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, resulting in the birth of twin girls known as Lulu and Nana, was released to the public. Speaking in the Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong, shortly after his news shocked the global scientific community, Associate Professor He Jiankui of South University of Science and Technology of China apologised that his research "was leaked unexpectedly". In the 30-minute talk held at Hong Kong University, He Jiankui explained his reasons and the steps he took to perform the world's first case of the editing of human germline-cells, which are cells passed on by reproduction. He claims to have enrolled seven couples – all with HIV-positive male partners and HIV-negative mothers – in a clinical trial and used their eggs and sperm to create embryos through IVF. He and his team then used CRISPR to deactivate a single gene called CCR5 (a protein which the HIV virus uses to gain entry into human cells) in the embryos. Six of these embryos were then implanted into mothers, resulting in one pregnancy and the birth of twin girls who were "born normal and healthy", one of them allegedly immune to HIV as a result of the gene-edit. He says that he is "proud" of altering the genes of twin girls, adding that there were plans to monitor the twins over the next 18 years. And that's not the only bombshell the scientist dropped. In the summit, He announced that there is another lady pregnant with a genetically modified embryo in the "early stages" who is being monitored closely. In his speech during the summit, the professor was scant on important details that would be required of any scientific project wishing to be regarded as credible. And since his announcement came in a YouTube video rather than a journal where other scientists could review his work, his work has yet to be verified. But even if this is a hoax, many worry that Professor He has opened Pandora's box, encouraging more to follow in his footsteps. Many scientists are condemning the professor's actions, calling him "naive", and saying it was unethical and irresponsible of him to conduct this experiment in secret. Now you may be thinking that gene editing is nothing new, and if Professor He did successfully prevent the twin girls from contracting HIV, then surely that must be a good thing, right? So why the outrage? Well, while Professor He may have had noble intentions, the sperm, eggs, or embryo gene-editing that he claims to have done is banned in many countries – and for a good reason. Although researchers have been experimenting with gene editing for the past three decades, these cases were mostly tried in adults to treat deadly diseases and the changes are confined to the individual. By editing the embryo, the gene-editing Professor He made in the twin babies is permanent and can be passed to future generations. Even though the technology needed to genetically modify embryos has been around for a while, scientists before Professor He were unwilling to cross that ethical line because they didn't know how this could affect human's DNA in the long run. Although embryonic gene editing has the potential to do brilliant things, messing with any eco-system can have serious consequences. The ramifications of He's actions are unpredictable and potentially dangerous to the future of the human race, should the twins choose to have biological children when they grow up. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that these tests were conducted on the girls when they were embryos, which suggests that the edits may have only worked on some of their cells. In such an unprecedented situation, it is unclear as to whether or not either of the individuals will see any benefit or harm from the gene editing, and if so, what that might be.
Read More! Learn some Cantonese slang, or explore the rest of our Culture section.

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Sarah Moran

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong to expat parents, Sarah grew up as your typical third-culture kid, caught between two worlds. As someone who is nosy (or just curious) and loves the written word, there was never any other career that appealed to her as much as journalism. When she’s not busy on her mission to find the line between not enough coffee and too much coffee, you can find her exploring the city or getting stuck in a good book.