A Chinese scientist recently announced that he had engineered the world’s first genetically edited baby, but experts are calling the unverified claim dubious. Professor He Jiankui, who supposedly performed the experiment, claims that the babies, twin girls, had their DNA altered to protect them against HIV. Editing the genes of embryos poses serious moral questions, and the practice is banned in most countries. Although the technique could potentially be used to prevent disease, the long-term effects are unknown. If a gene is removed or altered in an embryo, future generations could also inherit the same change. Because of the potential for downstream harm, there are many laws in place against allowing altered embryos to develop. At present, research is only allowed on discarded IVF embryos, and only if they are destroyed afterwards. Professor He is the first scientist to make the claim of allowing an altered embryo to develop to full term. Scientists around the globe have called the experiment monstrous and questioned whether it actually took place. Professor He did his medical studies at Stanford University in the U.S., and he currently practices in the city of Shenzhen, in Southern China. He says that he used gene-editing tools to eliminate a gene called CCR5, which should make the two girls, “Lulu” and “Nana,” resistant to HIV. He says his work is focused on reducing the burden of disease and not on creating “designer babies,” another big worry about gene editing technology. “I understand my work will be controversial,” he said. “But I believe families need this technology, and I’m willing to take the criticism for them.” Organizations implicated in the experiment, including Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology, have denied any involvement. One risk of gene editing is the potential for unintended mutations. Otherwise healthy embryos could be damaged, leading to genetic problems in babies that would have been born healthy. Professor He reportedly performed gene editing on healthy embryos, so many scientists see his research as especially troublesome. Even his choice of disease is highly questionable. HIV these days is very treatable, and there is little chance of a mother passing the virus on to her children. In the future, however, most experts agree that gene editing could be a useful tool for dealing with certain kinds of diseases. Embryos with a genetic problem, for example, could be “fixed” so that a healthy baby is born. But the technology still has a long way to go before we reach that point. At the moment, the field is still in its infancy, and there are no proper guidelines or regulations. Experimenting on humans, as He claims to have done, is morally unacceptable.
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1. What is the claim of the Chineses scientist?
2. What will happen to the future generations of an embryo whose gene is removed or altered?
3. Why is Professor He's research especially troublesome?
1. Do you think experimenting on humans is morally acceptable?
2. Do you think Professor He was being honest with his claim? Why do you think so?
3. Do you think diseases should be treated when the baby is born or do you think it should be prevented during the embryo stage?