The FAQs: Chinese Scientist Claims First Gene-Edited Babies

He Jiankui - Wikipedia

By Joe Carter - Posted at The Gospel Coalition:

What just happened?

In 2015 a team of Chinese scientists sparked a worldwide ethical debate when they used a technique to “edit” the genomes of human embryos. Although the embryos were never implanted and brought to term, the experiments led to concerns the technique would soon be used to create babies with edited-genes.

This week a Chinese researcher announced he had done just that.

He Jiankui (pronounced HEH JEE’-an-qway, with the surname first) reports that he altered a gene in a set of twins who were born this month. Seven couples seeking in-vitro fertilization (IVF) allowed He to edit a gene in embryos before implantation. The gene was edited with the intention of preventing HIV from entering the child’s cells, increasing their ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS. So far, two of the children that had a gene edited have been born.

How did He Jiankui alter the gene?

The Chinese scientist engaged in gene editing (or genome editing), a form of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, replaced, or removed from the genetic material of a cell using artificially engineered enzymes, or “molecular scissors.”

A common method of gene editing, and the process used by He Jiankui, is the CRISPR/Cas9 system. The simplistic explanation is that the “molecular scissors” (Cas9, an RNA-guided DNA enzyme) cuts an enzyme on a specific spot of DNA in the nucleus of a cell. The cell then repairs the break using a piece of single-stranded DNA that has been injected into the cell by a scientist.

Was He Jiankui’s alteration to the gene successful?

Currently, there is no independent confirmation that He Jiankui successfully edited the genes on the children. His claims have not been verified by other scientists or published in a scientific journal, though He said he will make his raw data available for third-party review. He announced the results at a recent conference and in an interview with the Associated Press (AP).

According to the AP, several scientists reviewed materials He provided to the news agency. Their conclusion is that tests so far are insufficient to say the editing worked or that it would not harm the children.