The CRISPR gene editing technique can be used for very positive applications, but it can also veer into incredibly controversial territory. That second category is implicated in a project reportedly being carried out in China, in which scientists are attempting to create the world’s first children whose DNA has been altered through the use of gene editing.
According to MIT Technology Review, researchers in China have sought to recruit couples for the study. They aim to modify the couples’ human embryos to eliminate a gene called CCR5. By eliminating this gene, the researchers think that it will be possible to make any offspring resistant to potentially fatal diseases such as HIV, smallpox, and cholera. Data submitted as part of the trial indicates that genetic testing has been carried out on fetuses as old as six months. Clinical trial documents relating to the project date back as far as March 2017. An Associated Press report suggests that one couple involved in the trial has given birth to twin girls, Lulu and Nana.
Confirming the birth of the first genetically modified human, or humans, would be a major milestone in science. It would be at least as significant as the invention of in vitro fertilization, in which an egg is combined with sperm outside the body, thereby helping people who may not otherwise be able to have babies to become pregnant.
However, it would prove extremely controversial, too. Provided that such a feat can be carried out safely, eliminating diseases such as HIV might be a positive application for this tool. But it also raises the prospect of so-called “designer babies,” whose appearance or personality traits can be genetically altered. In addition, it is highly problematic to experiment on healthy embryos.
Jiankui He, the scientist who leads the project, has said that he wants to focus only on medical applications for the work. “I support gene editing for the treatment and prevention of disease, but not for enhancement or improving IQ, which is not beneficial to society,” He wrote in a recent post on the Chinese social media platform WeChat.
The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, the research organization linked to the project, has said that it is unaware of it and will carry out an investigation.