China CRISPR baby experiment may have created "unintended mutations"

AFP Chinese scientist He Jiankui in a summit on Human Genome Editing in November 2018

AFP Chinese scientist He Jiankui in a summit on Human Genome Editing in November 2018

The MIT Technology Review published portions of two previously unseen research papers on Tuesday, principally authored by Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui, who past year attempted to use CRISPR DNA editing technology to immunize twins - Lulu and Nana - against HIV.

He Jiankui, a Chinese biophysics researcher, earlier claimed to have successfully performed gene-editing on twins Lula and Nana and immunised them against HIV.

The MIT Technology Review released excerpts of the research by Jiankui, and how he failed to hold up ethical and scientific norms in creating the twins.

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A small percentage of people are born with immunity because of a mutation in a gene called CCR5 and it was this gene that He had claimed he had targeted using a powerful editing tool known as CRISPR which has revolutionised the field since bursting on the scene in 2012.

Several scientists have claimed that He's research and claims on the variant gene of CCR5 is inaccurate and a blatant misinterpretation of the actual data. "The commentary that embryo bettering will wait on millions is equal ingredients delusional and depraved, and is equivalent to announcing that the 1969 moonwalk "brings hopes to millions of human beings in quest of to dwell on the moon".

In their paper, the authors describe the changes that they did make to the twins' DNA. However, while they intended the edits to confer HIV resistance, it could not be certain, since the edits are only similar and not identical to the naturally occurring delta 32 mutation.

Using Crispr in humans is controversial as it sometimes causes unplanned gene edits. The remaining cells that would differentiate and proliferate to become the twins could have also harbored off-target edits, and it would not be possible to know that before the pregnancy began.

Jeanne O'Brien, a reproductive endocrinologist at Shady Grove Fertility told the MIT Technology Review that there are speculations that the lack of access to the fertility centers prompted the parents to be involved in the experiment despite the many risks to the children.

Scientists noted other potential ethics issues in He's research, observing that Lulu and Nana's parents belonged to a "vulnerable patient group" due to their father being HIV-positive, which carries an intense stigma in China and might have barred the couple from ever receiving fertility treatment otherwise. Did the study provide a genetic treatment for a social problem?

Chinese scientist is facing backlash from fellow scholars for his inhumane experiment on twins.

Jiankui has attempted to have his manuscript published by prestigious journals, including Nature and JAMA, but it remains unpublished.

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