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Gene-edited babies may be resistant to HIV/AIDS

World AIDS Day is designated on 1 December every year to raise awareness of
the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic and mourn those
who have battled the disease.

AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which results in the HIV infection and progressive failure of the immune system. Without treatment, average survival time after HIV infection is about 9 to 11 years depending on the HIV subtype. Mostly transmitted sexually through blood, semen, and vaginal fluids, non-sexual transmission can also occur from an infected mother to her infant during pregnancy, childbirth and breast milk.

A growing public health threat with no signs of stopping, scientists are finding ways to slow down the progression of the virus and policymakers are hoping to receive funding and access to the drugs to help the affected people.

But research has transformed AIDS from a hopeless death sentence to a survivable lifelong disease. HIV treatment for adults is usually made up of three or more antiretroviral drugs taken together, sometimes in a single pill.

But for children, some HIV drugs do not come in a liquid form which makes it difficult for infants to swallow. Without treatment, half of these HIV-positive infants worldwide will not make it past their second birthday.

Hence, a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, claims he has made the world’s first ‘designer’ babies – twin girls born in November 2018, through CRISPR-cas9, a gene-editing tool. His fertility treatment project aimed to offer couples affected by HIV a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate. The father of the twin babies was HIV-positive and on HIV treatment, while the mother was HIV-negative.

The babies had their DNA edited to disable the CCR5 gene which forms a protein doorway that allows HIV to enter a cell. Some tests suggest that one twin had both copies of the intended gene altered and the other twin had just one altered.

Many scientists have voiced their concerns, some denouncing the unsafe project as human experimentation, while some say it is justifiable to disable a problematic gene.

He clarified his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV.

Share your thoughts on ‘designer’ babies with us on Twitter @asia_biotech

Lim Guan Yu
APBN Editor
You can reach me at gylim@wspc.com


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