• Chinese scientists successfully modified non-viable embryos to make them HIV-resistant.

Chinese scientists successfully modified non-viable embryos to make them HIV-resistant. (Photo : Getty Images)

A team of Chinese researchers modified genes in a human embryo to make it resistant to HIV, clarifying that they experimented on flawed embryos to appease controversy on the ethics of their research.

The experts from China's Guangzhou Medical University were able to genetically edit using the CRISPR-Cas technique, according to their research published on April 6 in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics.

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According to the paper, the Chinese scientists aimed to introduce "precise genetic modifications in early human embryos" by using the CRISPR/Cas system.

But the experiment became controversial due to the use of human embryos, something that sparked intense reaction from human rights groups.

"This is the first step on a path that scientists have carefully mapped out toward the legalization of [genetically modified] babies," Human Genetics Alert's anti-gene manipulation group member David King was quoted saying earlier this year by the Global Times.

However, the scientists argued that the experiment can be considered ethical since they used non-viable human embryos that cannot grow as they were "not viable for fertility treatment," according to the paper's lead author Fan Yong.

Because of this reasoning, Fan and his teammates earned support from some of China's top ethics advocates like Qiu Renzong, the first Chinese Avicenna Prize for Ethics laureate.

"Such research paves the way to treatment. . . . More importantly, the immature technique is too early for clinical uses. . . . The abnormal embryos in the experiment are unable to grow," Qiu explained.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Academy of Sciences' (CAS) National Center for Gene Research director Han Bin added that if successfully developed, the technology would be very beneficial to medical treatments for "diseases caused by inherited variation, including cancers."

But for that to happen, more research is needed and Fan believes that their team can become the pioneers of the technique.

"Intensive basic and preclinical research is clearly needed and should proceed, subject to appropriate legal and ethical rules and oversight," said a joint statement from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, CAS, and the Royal Society on the International Summit on Human Gene Editing.