DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A Chinese researcher is claiming to have created the world's first genetically edited human babies. According to the scientist, the genes of two twin girls have been modified to resist HIV infection. That's the virus that causes AIDS. This claim is highly controversial with some scientists denouncing this work as unethical human experimentation. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to talk about this. Hi there, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Oh, hey there, David.
GREENE: All right. Let's start by who the scientist is. And how are we learning about this right now?
STEIN: Yes. So his name is He Jiankui, and he works at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. Right now he's at a meeting in Hong Kong. It's the International Summit on Human Gene Editing. And that's where he's making this extraordinary claim.
GREENE: What is the claim? What does he say he's actually done here?
STEIN: Yeah, so he says he's used a powerful new kind of genetic engineering - it's called CRISPR - to make changes in human embryos and then use those human embryos to try to make babies. And he even claims, as you said, that he was able to create a pair of twin girls. And they were born a few weeks ago from these genetically modified embryos. And their names are Lulu and Nana. They're supposedly healthy and back home with their parents, Mark and Grace.
GREENE: So how is the scientific community reacting to this moment?
STEIN: Yeah. Well, as you mentioned, this is extremely controversial.
STEIN: I mean, a lot of scientists - you know, they think this sort of thing - it may be OK someday to try to prevent a long list of really terrible diseases. But even advocates of editing human DNA like this are saying, look. This is just way too premature. And we're kind of getting ahead of ourselves here. I talked to, for example, Jennifer Doudna. She's one of the scientists from California who's credited with helping invent CRISPR, this gene-editing technique. And, you know, she's saying that there's a lot of concerns. And a big one is safety, I mean, for any kids that anybody tries to make this way. And so a lot more research is needed to make sure it is safe and it really works. And perhaps even more importantly, scientists say, look. We need a broad societal debate to figure out, like, you know, in what circumstances should we do this? And how should we proceed? And we're far from having that consensus on how to modify the human genetic blueprint this way.
GREENE: I mean, a really significant debate because, I mean, this is this is raising the question of, you know, so-called designer babies and opening the door to all sorts of stuff, right?
STEIN: That's right. This is the sort of thing that's long been considered taboo - you know, genetically modifying human beings in a way that could be passed down for generations. And the big fear, as I said, is safety. You know, if scientists make some kind of mistake, they could, you know, create a new disease that would then be passed down for generations. And, you know, it does open the door to this, you know, kind of scary scenario people call designer babies, where scientists don't do this, you know, for medical reasons but for other reasons - to make taller babies, stronger babies. And that could lead to this - you know, maybe some kind of super race of human beings considered to be genetically superior.
GREENE: But you did say that a lot of scientists think there might be a way to do this in an acceptable way someday in the future. So, I mean, what happens now with this Chinese scientist who says he's done this?
STEIN: Yeah. So the big thing right now is to validate, did he really do this?
STEIN: I mean, you know, this sort of thing usually comes out in a scientific journal after being carefully reviewed by other scientists. And this is, you know, a valid line of research that people have been pursuing for a while. But, you know, scientists really first want to know whether this is true. I mean, this would be an historic claim. Some people are comparing this to the birth of the, you know, first IVF baby, Louise Brown. So we need a lot more research to figure out whether this is true. And that this meeting in Hong Kong is going on right now - the purpose of this meeting is to really try to create a scientific consensus for when we should proceed with editing human DNA this way.
GREENE: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.
STEIN: Oh, sure. Thanks to be - nice to be here, David.
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