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CRISPR: Revolutionary or not?

By Zoey Sun

On the 25th of November, 2018, a world-changing announcement was made on the popular video-sharing platform, YouTube, with over 2.3 billion users worldwide. He Jiankui, a Chinese biophysics researcher, sparked global controversy when he claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited children.

He Jiankui first shocked the scientific community when he announced that he used CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing procedure, to rewrite the DNA in the embryos of the twin sisters, Lulu and Nana. He then claimed that the modifications he and two others on his research team had applied in their DNA would make the children immune to HIV by turning the CCR5 gene into a mutant form, preventing the virus from invading cells.

He Jiankui's attempt to mimic the natural mutation some people have, making them immune to HIV, was then reviewed by Fyodor Urnov, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley; Urnov stated that Jiankui’s claim was false and that the team had created new mutations with unknown consequences in the target gene as well as elsewhere in the genome.

Although his experiment itself was extremely risky and had already crossed the bottom line of medical ethics, his violations of national regulations in medical treatment and scientific research caused further global outcry. In addition to not having proper certification to practice medicine, He Jiankui and his research team obtained forged documents from an ethics review panel in order to recruit couples for his research.

Even as the scientific community denied his work, He Jiankui defended it and stated that he was proud to have created the twins. As a result, the court in Shenzhen sentenced him to three years in prison and fined him 3m yuan($448,853). His two colleagues, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, also received lesser fines and shorter sentences.

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