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Scientists in China claim to have created first gene-edited human babies

A Chinese research group claims to have used CRISPR to genetically edit human embryos leading to the birth of healthy twin girls.

Face and hand of a five month old male foetus

Five-month-old foetus.

NEIL BROMHALL/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBR

World, meet "Lulu and Nana".

The twin girls are, according to a Chinese research team, the very first genetically modified human beings.

The research was first detailed by MIT's Technology Review and linked to Chinese medical documents in the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry led by Jiankui He, a researcher based in Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology.

The documents suggest the research group are currently running trials to alter the gene CCR5, which human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the causative agent of AIDS, utilizes when infecting humans. To do so, the team have used the immensely powerful molecular scissors known as CRISPR/Cas9 -- an emerging technology that can precisely "cut and paste" genes, allowing for sections of DNA to be removed and replaced, almost at will.

By using CRISPR to genetically alter CCR5, the researchers hoped to make the girls immune to HIV throughout their life. 

He, in a video uploaded to his lab's YouTube channel, detailed the monumental breakthrough in gene editing claiming the twin girls "came into this world as healthy as any other babies" and that the gene editing had worked safely -- only editing the CCR5 gene. The research team has, according to the Associated Press, genetically altered the embryos of seven couples, with just the one resulting in pregnancy so far.

You can watch that video below:

Most importantly, the research has yet to be independently verified and has not yet been published in a journal, which makes He's video seem more like an exercise in marketing the breakthrough than having it scrutinized. It's not unusual to see scientists share their work in such a way, but the announcement should be taken with a helping of skepticism.

After the digging done by MIT's Technology Review, He was interviewed by the Associated Press but would not reveal details about the parents or the children. Discussing his work, he detailed the process involves taking sperm and an egg from the parents, creating the embryo with in vitro fertilization (IVF), before using CRISPR to edit the CCR5 gene. That embryo then developed in the mother, code-named "Grace", before twins "Lulu and Nana" we born.

Chinese scientists have been denounced for their work in human genome editing before when, in 2015, researchers in Guangzhou reported they had (mostly) successfully edited embryos. In 2016, the UK gave the go ahead to use CRISPR and edit donated human embryos in an effort to better understand developmental processes. Japan did the same in October this year. But there still remains ethical concerns over the use of the technology and some nations ban the technology completely.

Even if evidence for the breakthrough is not forthcoming, the work shows how far we've come in a short amount of time -- thanks to CRISPR. As the technology continues to be refined all over the world, the question ultimately circles back to the famous, oft-repeated adage of Jurassic Park's Dr. Ian Malcolm: Have we become preoccupied with whether we could, and forgotten to ask whether we should?

The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing takes place in Hong Kong, beginning Nov. 27. With such a striking announcement being made just days before the summit kicks off, there's likely to be heated discussions about the ethical, moral and scientific implications of He's work in the days to come.

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