Scientists fear uproar over gene-edited babies could hurt future research

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WASHINGTON — Scientists working on the frontiers of medicine fear the uproar over the reported births of gene-edited babies in China could jeopardize promising research into how to alter heredity to fend off a variety of disorders.

Researchers are rapidly learning how to edit DNA to fight such conditions as Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs and hereditary heart disease, conducting legally permissible experiments in lab animals and petri dishes without taking the ultimate step of actually creating babies. Now they worry about a backlash against their work, too.

“The alarmists who claimed that scientists won’t behave responsibly in the development of the next generation of gene editing now have ammunition,” said a dismayed Kyle Orwig, a reproductive specialist at the University of Pittsburgh who hopes to eventually alter sperm production to treat infertility.

He said there is a clear public demand for the kind of research he is doing: “Families contact me all the time,” men who can’t produce sperm and aren’t helped by today’s reproductive care.

A Chinese researcher sent a shock wave through the scientific community this week when he claimed to have altered the DNA of embryos in hopes of making them resistant to the AIDS virus. He reported the birth of twin girls and said there may be another pregnancy resulting from his work.

International guidelines for years have said gene editing that can change human heredity — through altered eggs, sperm or embryos — should not be tested in human pregnancies until scientists learn if the practice is safe. One fear is that such experiments could inadvertently damage genes that could then be passed on to future generations.

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