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HONG KONG: A scientist in China claims to have created the world’s first genetically-edited babies, a move that would be a ground-breaking medical first but which has generated a barrage of criticism.

Chinese university professor He Jiankui posted a video on YouTube saying that the twin girls, born a few weeks ago, had had their DNA altered to prevent them from contracting HIV.

The professor, who was educated at Stanford in the US and works from a lab in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, said their DNA was modified using CRISPR, a technique which allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision.

The development emerged on Sunday in an article published by industry journal the MIT Technology Review, which referenced medical documents posted online by He’s research team to recruit couples for the experiments.

He’s video then went online, prompting a heated debate among the scientific community, including from experts who cast doubt over the claimed breakthrough, and others who decried it as a modern form of eugenics.

He said the babies, known as “Lulu” and “Nana” although they are not their real names, were born through regular IVF but using an egg which was specially modified before being inserted into the womb.

“Right after sending her husband’s sperm into her egg, an embryologist also sent in CRISPR/Cas9 protein and instructions to perform a gene surgery intended to protect the girls from future HIV infection,” he said.

Gene editing is a potential fix for heritable diseases but it is extremely controversial because the changes would be passed down to future generations and could eventually affect the entire gene pool.

The MIT Technology Review warned “the technology is ethically charged”.

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2018

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