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De­signer ba­bies might be here sooner than any­one reck­oned. A Chi­nese re­searcher who says he cre­ated gene-edited ba­bies crossed what most sci­en­tists con­sider a for­bid­den line.

It’s not clear if the claim is true and if so, how the twin girls whose DNA re­port­edly was al­tered will fare as they grow.

There is wide sci­en­tific agree­ment that rewrit­ing DNA be­fore birth — to pre­vent an in­her­ited dis­ease or to give a baby some “de­signer” trait — isn’t yet safe to try out­side lab­o­ra­tory ex­per­i­ments that do not lead to hu­man births.

“Grossly pre­ma­ture and deeply un­eth­i­cal,” is how noted U.S. bioethi­cist Henry Greely of Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity char­ac­ter­ized the claim.

The re­searcher, He Jiankui of Shen­zhen, said he al­tered em­bryos when par­ents were un­der­go­ing fer­til­ity treat­ments to change a gene so that it might pro­vide the re­sult­ing ba­bies with a trait few peo­ple nat­u­rally have — pro­tec­tion against fu­ture in­fec­tion with the AIDS virus.

“This is prob­a­bly the worst gene you would choose” to test in preg­nancy be­cause it doesn’t fix a dis­ease the chil­dren were des­tined to get, said Shoukhrat Mi­tal­ipov of the Ore­gon Health & Sci­ence Uni­ver­sity, who in lab­o­ra­tory-only ex­per­i­ments stud­ies how to re­pair gene de­fects in em­bryos.

“Where is the as­sur­ance this mu­ta­tion now will re­sult in re­sis­tance to HIV?” Mi­tal­ipov added. “He’s test­ing his hy­poth­e­sis on ba­bies.”

Here are ques­tions and an­swers about Mon­day’s claim and the state of gene edit­ing:


It’s a tech­nol­ogy that lets sci­en­tists al­ter the DNA of liv­ing cells — from plants, an­i­mals, even hu­mans — more pre­cisely than ever be­fore.

It’s like a bi­o­log­i­cal cut-and-paste pro­gram: An en­zyme that acts like molec­u­lar scis­sors snips a sec­tion of a gene, al­low­ing sci­en­tists to delete, re­pair or re­place it.


Re­searchers rou­tinely use gene-edit­ing tools in labs to study dis­eases in cells or an­i­mals, and they’re al­ter­ing crops and food an­i­mals for bet­ter agri­cul­ture.

But in peo­ple, gene edit­ing still is highly ex­per­i­men­tal. One first-in-hu­man study is test­ing in­tra­venous in­fu­sion of gene-edit­ing in­gre­di­ents to fight a killer metabolic dis­ease. Other re­searchers are de­vel­op­ing ways to ge­needit dam­aged cells and re­turn them, re­paired, into pa­tients with sickle cell dis­ease and other dis­or­ders. But un­like Mon­day’s an­nounce­ment, none of those ex­per­i­ments would al­ter DNA

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