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Chinese Researchers Claim to Have Genetically Engineered the First HIV-Immune Babies

Researchers in China used genetic engineering tools to create twins theoretically immune to HIV, smallpox, and cholera, MIT Technology Review reported. The medical breakthrough is controversial, as many worry about eugenics and designer babies for the wealthy.

The twins, named Lulu and Nana, according to lead scientist He Jiankui of Shenzhen in a YouTube video, were the result of in vitro fertilization (IVF). A few weeks old, they appear to be healthy. When they were a single cell, genetic surgery using a popular tool, CRISPR, “removed the doorway through which HIV enters to infect people.”

After a normal pregnancy, the mother, only referred to as Grace, gave birth to the two girls. The father, Mark, has HIV.

He and his team did the genetic surgery for seven different couples during fertility treatments, according to the Associated Press. The couples have declined to be identified or interviewed. This is the first birth.

The claims of the researchers have yet to be independently verified or reviewed.

Harmful genetically-transmitted conditions could be stopped in this manner. But genetic modification as applied to humans is controversial.

“[W]e’ve never done anything that will change the genes of the human race, and we’ve never done anything that will have effects that will go on through the generations,” biologist David Baltimore, chair of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, which starts tomorrow, said in pre-recorded remarks. A change eventually shown to be a mistake might be impossible to undo.

There are also other ethical concerns. Genetic engineering of humans could lead to designer babies, according to Dr. David King, a former molecular biologist and founder of Human Genetics Alert. “The free market effectively results in eugenics” and will deliver greater inequality, he wrote in the Guardian last year.