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Chinese Scientist Says He's Created First Genetically Modified Babies


A Chinese scientist claims he has created the world's first genetically edited human babies. He did it, he says, to protect the twin girls from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports his claim is being met internationally with skepticism and condemnation.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: The scientist is He Jiankui from the Southern University of Science and Technology. He posted a series of videos on his website revealing and justifying his experiment.


HE JIANKUI: Two beautiful little Chinese girl named Lulu and Nana came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago.

STEIN: He says he created Lulu and Nana using a powerful new gene editing technique called CRISPR to perform genetic surgery on their DNA when they were just a single-cell embryo in his lab.


HE: When Lulu and Nana was just a single cell, this surgery removed the doorway through which HIV enter to affect people.

STEIN: The idea was to protect the girls so HIV could not infect them - their father is HIV positive - by genetically blocking the cellular doorway the AIDS virus uses to invade cells. And He says it worked.


HE: The girls are home now with their mom, Grace, and their dad, Mark. No gene was changed except the one to prevent HIV infection. The girls are safe, healthy as any other babies.

STEIN: Now, no one knows whether He really did what he claims. Their experiment hasn't been verified by any independent scientists. But if he did what he says he did, it's being widely condemned as irresponsible human experimentation.

FYODOR URNOV: It's a somber and landmark day.

STEIN: That's Fyodor Urnov of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences in Seattle.

URNOV: Landmark because the report marks a fundamental transition in how we humans approach ourselves as a species.

STEIN: If it's true, humans can now for the first time edit in or out individual traits at conception and pass them down to future generations. And Urnov says it's somber for many reasons. First of all, no one knows if this is safe.

URNOV: I call this irresponsible experimentation because essentially what they've done is used gene editing to create children whom we'll now watch crossing our fingers and holding our breaths that's they've not missed some untoward genetic change which may manifest itself later in life.

STEIN: Urnov says there are other, safer ways to protect people from AIDS. And these scientists may have now opened the door to creating genetically modified babies for other reasons.

URNOV: We have entered the room with the word designer baby on the door. The more we learn about human genetic makeup, the more traits on demand will we see in the drop-down menu on

STEIN: Theoretically, scientists could someday try to create babies who are stronger, taller, faster. Governments could even try to create soldiers who can't feel pain.

URNOV: Ten years ago, if I were to tell you that we're going to use gene editing to create a group of human beings incapable of sensing pain for some frankly quite nefarious purpose, I myself would not have believed this. But here we are. I wish that this was all science fiction. Believe me. Unfortunately, this appears to be science reality.

STEIN: For his part, He says he agrees the technology should never be used to try to create designer babies. But he defends his experiment.


HE: I understand my work will be controversial. But I believe family need this technology. And I'm willing to take the criticism for them.

STEIN: He is scheduled to talk more about his work at an international summit that's just beginning in Hong Kong to try to establish a global consensus on how humans should or should not be genetically modified. Jennifer Doudna is a Berkeley scientist who helped invent gene editing and organized the summit.

JENNIFER DOUDNA: It really reinforces the urgent need to confine the use of gene editing in human embryos to settings where there's a clear unmet medical need and where there's no alternative.

STEIN: In the meantime, He's university has disavowed his work, and he is now under investigation to determine whether he violated any Chinese laws or regulations. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.

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