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Monstrous: Aussie experts on ‘edited’ bubs

Monstrous: Aussie experts on 'edited' bubs - Featured Image

A Chinese researcher has engaged in a monstrous game of Russian roulette if he really has made the world’s first genetically edited babies, Australian experts say.

A chorus of international condemnation has erupted after He Jiankui said he’d altered the DNA of twin girls, born earlier this month, to make them resistant to the virus that causes AIDS.

Australian geneticists and bioethicists are sceptical and say he has offered no proof that he permanently altered the twins’ genetic codes.

But if he is telling the truth, they say it’s a premature and dangerous leap with unknown consequences for future generations.

They accuse him of unethical conduct that flies in the face of a consensus ban on fiddling with the genes of embryos that will result in live births.

That ban exists because any changes that are made are passed on to future generations and not enough is known about the effects of that.

They also say the researcher from China’s Southern University of Science and Technology has shown complete disregard for the welfare of the babies at the heart of his experiment.

Limited use of genetic editing in adults – solely for the purposes of treating serious diseases – has shown that it can have unintended consequences.

Professor Julian Savulescu, a bioethicist with Victoria’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute says that if He’s claims are proven, he’s engaged in “monstrous” conduct.

“These healthy babies are being used as genetic guinea pigs. This is genetic Russian roulette,” he says.

“Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.”

Associate Professor Darren Saunders is a gene technology and cancer specialist in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of NSW.

He shares Prof Savulescu’s concerns and worries that He’s claims could set back the study of gene editing by decades.

“Most scientists think that the safety concerns around gene-editing in humans are still too big to outweigh any potential benefit,” he said.

But he said it was possible the world had just seen “a huge leap towards editing the human book of life”.

“Some might even suggest this is a step towards eugenics,” he said, referring to a movement that advocates improving the genetic composition of the human race.

He claims to have altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, allowing him to cut-and-paste DNA with the aim of specific outcomes, in this case HIV resistance.

He says one pregnancy has resulted so far, the two girls born earlier this month.

But the Chinese university where he worked until February says it didn’t know what He was doing, and has launched an investigation calling his work a “serious violation of academic ethics and standards”.

More: Q&A about gene-edited babies

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