A CHINESE researcher claims he has created the first genetically modified babies as twins were born with altered DNA.
The conference was rocked by the Chinese researcher's claim to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies.
He Jiankui, largely unknown until yesterday, is an associate professor at Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology of China (南方科技大学 or SUSTC).
There is not yet independent confirmation of his claim, but scientists and regulators have been swift to condemn the experiment as unethical and unscientific.
Such changes to a person's DNA can pass to future generations and risks harming other genes.
When the early embryos were five days old, cells were removed and checked through DNA sequencing to see if the genome editing had worked. One caveat, he said, is that the gene editing would need to affect both copies of the CCR5 genes to confer a benefit, and so far it looks like that happened in only one of the twins, while the other twin has just one copy of the gene adjustment.
"Pandora's box has been opened", they said.
"No gene was changed except the one to prevent HIV infection", He says. They said the technology was nothing new but still has its flaws and risks, criticizing He for crossing the ethical line and describing his research as "insane".
"The University was deeply shocked by this event and has taken immediate action to reach Dr. Jiankui He for clarification", the officials said in the statement. This gene forms a protein doorway that allows HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter a cell; the mutation alters this doorway, physically blocking the virus from entering the cell.
Gene editing is banned in Britain, the USA many other parts of the world, largely because its long-term effects on mental and physical health are poorly understood.
He's shock announcement came just one day before an global summit on genome editing, which kicked off in Hong Kong on November 27.
He had studied in the past at Rice and Stanford universities in the United States.
"This is probably the worst gene you would choose" to test in pregnancy because it doesn't fix a disease the children were destined to get, said Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health & Science University, who in laboratory-only experiments studies how to repair gene defects in embryos.
"If true, this experiment is monstrous", he told Reuters. It also emphasized that its members believe germline editing is still too risky to be done at this time.
CRISPR is cheap and easy to deploy, but scientists are still debating the ethics of using it in human beings.
Professor Hawking, who predicted that humans would discover ways to "modify intelligence and instincts" in this century, warned against such genetic modification, voicing the possibility that gene engineering could give rise to a new species of human that might lead to the destruction of the rest of humanity. "We still have a lot of work to do to prove and establish that the procedure is actually safe", Musunuru said. In the US, scientists can perform laboratory embryo research only with private funding, not with federal taxpayer money.
"We've been talking about genetic engineering of embryos for a while... what is a bit more revolutionary is that these children were allegedly engineered to provide resistance to a disease".