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CRISPR-Cas9 technology uses “molecular scissors” to cut and splice DNA. (UC-Berkeley Graphic)

Multiple investigations are being sought in the wake of reports that a Chinese laboratory facilitated the birth of twin girls whose genes had been edited to protect them against the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

The first-of-its-kind experiment, which took advantage of the CRISPR gene-editing technique, came to light in reports published late Sunday by MIT Technology Review and The Associated Press. The researcher in charge of the project, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, also published a series of videos explaining the gene-editing project.

There has been no outside confirmation of He’s claims, but geneticists and health policymakers say such claims raise grave ethical issues — including the prospect of creating designer babies, enhancing traits and even introducing exotic new traits.

In his videos, He insisted that his goal was to reduce the risk of maladies ranging from AIDS to cystic fibrosis. His team targeted a specific gene, CCR5, which plays a role in HIV’s spread to healthy cells.

The twin girls, known by the pseudonyms Lulu and Nana, were healthy and at home with their parents, He said. The genetic father is said to be HIV-positive. Several other couples with HIV-positive men are participating in the experiment, but the birth of Lulu and Nana is the only one reported so far.

Today the Southern University said it was “deeply shocked” by the reports and was seeking clarification from He. In its statement, the university said it was unaware of He’s project or its nature, and noted that the experiment was not conducted on its campus. The statement said that He has been on unpaid leave from the university since February, and that the Department of Biology’s academic committee believes the researcher’s conduct “has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct.”

“The university will call for international experts to form an independent committee to investigate this incident, and to release the results to the public,” the statement said.

China’s National Health Commission issued a separate statement saying that it “attached great importance” to reports about the gene-editing experiment and immediately asked provincial health officials to “seriously investigate and verify” the reports.

Such experiments would be illegal in the United States and many other countries. Stat News reported that Rice University has opened a “full investigation” into the reported involvement of one of its faculty members, bioengineering professor Michael Deem.

The experts voicing concerns about the experiment include pioneers in the field of CRISPR gene editing:

  • Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna said in a statement that “it is imperative that the scientists responsible for this work fully explain their break from the global consensus that application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing should not proceed at the present time.”
  • Feng Zhang of the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute said in a statement provided to MIT Technology Review that he was “in favor of a moratorium on implantation of edited embryos.”
  • Tom Ellis of Imperial College London said in a tweet that his collaborators in Shenzhen were surprised by the news. “Jiankui He is supposed to be working on new single-molecule DNA sequencing technologies. He doesn’t have a genetics or human health background at all. This story isn’t adding up at all.”
  • Chinese bioethicist Qiu Renzong was quoted in a tweet by The CRISPR Journal as saying: “There is a convenient and practical method to prevent HIV infection. To use germline genome editing is like ‘shooting a bird with a cannon.’ ”
  • Harvard’s George Church told Stat News that he has been in contact with He’s team and has seen the experimental data. “Is the genie really out of the bottle? Yes,” Stat quoted Church as saying.
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