Beijing has commissioned research into claims by a Chinese scientist to have made the world's first genetically engineered babies, a step that would be a pioneering medical scoop but that generated a barrage of criticism .
A video posted on YouTube by college professor He Jiankui said twin girls, born a few weeks ago, had changed their DNA to prevent them from incurring HIV, causing a heated debate within the scientific community.
While experts doubted the claimed breakthrough and others rejected it as a modern form of eugenics, China's National Health Commission ordered an "immediate investigation" into the case, the official Xinhua news agency reported early Tuesday, referring to a statement on the NHC website.
The professor, trained at Stanford University in the US and working from a laboratory in the South China city of Shenzhen, said that the DNA of the twins has been adapted using CRISPR, a technique that allows scientists to to be removed and replaced with the utmost precision.
The development emerged on Sunday in an article published by the journal MIT Technology Review, which referred to medical documents that were placed online by He's research team to recruit couples for the experiments.
He said that the baby's, known as "Lulu" and "Nana", although they are not their real name, were born through regular IVF but using an egg that was specially adapted before it was inserted into the womb .
"Immediately after her husband's sperm was sent into her egg, an embryologist also sent CRISPR / Cas9 proteins and instructions to perform a gene operation designed to protect the girls from future HIV infections," he said.
Editing genes is a possible solution to hereditary diseases, but it is extremely controversial because the changes are passed on to future generations and can ultimately affect the entire gene pool.
The MIT Technology Review warned "the technology is ethically charged".
The claims are coming this week at a conference of world experts in Hong Kong. He expected to speak Wednesday and Thursday.
But there is as yet no independent verification of his claims, which have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal – an omission that has taken the critics of the scientist.
The research has been strongly criticized by Chinese scientists and institutions. The university where he works said that he has had unpaid leave since February and that his research is a "serious violation of academic ethics and standards."
"This research was conducted by Professor He Jiankui outside the school," said the Southern University of Science and Technology in a statement Monday.
Rice University in the United States said it will investigate the involvement of Professor of Physics Michael Deem. This type of gene processing is banned in the US, although Deem said he was working with him on the project in China.
"Regardless of where it was carried out, this work as described in press releases violates the guidelines for scientific behavior and is not in line with the ethical standards of the scientific community and the Rice University," the school said in a statement.
And a joint statement by a group of 100 scientists in China criticized the findings and called for better state legislation.
"It is a big blow for the worldwide reputation and development of biomedical research in China," said the statement on the social media platform Weibo.
"It is extremely unfair to the vast majority of Chinese scientists who are diligent in scientific research and innovation."
Other scientists around the world were also critical, some said that a YouTube video was an inadequate way to announce scientific findings, and others warned that exposing healthy embryos and children to gene processing was irresponsible.
Professor Joyce Harper, professor of genetics and human embryology at the UCL in London, said: "Today's report on genomic human embryos against HIV resistance is premature, dangerous and irresponsible."
One independent expert even wondered whether the claim could be a fraud. Deem, the rice scientist who says he participated in the work, called it ridiculous.
"Of course the work has happened," Deem said. "I met the parents, I was there for the informed consent of the parents. & # 39;
Agence France-Presse and Associated Press contributed to this report