Claim of gene-edited baby sparks local outrage

A Chinese researcher claims to have genetically modified twin babies as embryos using an experimental procedure, and it's stirring up a controversial conversation about rewriting a person's DNA.

He Jiankui said he changed the twin's DNA to resist an HIV infection to help couples affected by HIV during fertility treatments. Those babies were born earlier in November.

Some in the science community said it is human experimentation. Others are skeptical to believe it because the embryo manipulation procedure has not been published and independently confirmed.  Jiankui claims he used an experimental tool, CRISPR-cas9, to cut and paste genes.

"There will be someone, somewhere, who is doing this. If it's not me, it's someone else," said Jiankui in an interview with the Associated Press.

That type of gene editing is banned in the U.S. except in lab research.

"So, when we make changes in the genes, we don't know what else downstream is being changed. So, that it may put the child at significant risk," said fertility specialist Dr. Sandy B. Goodman of the Reproductive Medicine Group in Tampa.

Goodman said the unconfirmed revelation is surprising.

"At this point in time, this is considered unethical," said Goodman.

Goodman says during in-vitro fertilization, doctors can help parents avoid becoming pregnant with a sick baby by implanting a healthy embryo.

"That is helpful for parents and that can increase their chances of having a healthy baby, but that's very different from manipulating the embryo itself," said Goodman.

The act of manipulating embryos not only brings up ethical concerns about creating a "designer baby" with desired traits, but there is also the risk of unknown consequences because changes to the embryo can be inherited.

"The fact that someone would say that they were doing that or perhaps do that is frightening because it does take us to a different level," said Goodman.

The Chinese researcher claims he practiced gene-editing animals and human embryos in a lab for years. That researcher is now under an ethics investigation to see if he broke any Chinese laws.