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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

UVM Pediatric Geneticist 'Appalled' By Chinese Scientist's Gene-Editing Claim

Bayla Metzger / VPR
Dr. Leah Burke, a Pediatric Geneticist and professor at the University of Vermont, says she's appalled by a Chinese scientist's claim that he'd created the world's first gene-edited babies.

A Chinese scientist set off a firestorm recently when he claimed he'd created the world's first gene-edited babies. He Jiankui says he altered the genes of twin girls while they were embryos, to protect them from the HIV virus. Dr. Leah Burke, a pediatric geneticist and professor at the University of Vermont, said she was appalled by the news.

Burke isn’t the only one. The are still doubts about the claim, because the research was not subjected to peer review. And many scientists say that — even if it did work — it was an unethical experiment.

“There’s a lot of technology that we have that we don’t necessarily need to use until it’s been thoroughly researched,” Burke said. “And even then there should be some brakes put on it.”

Burke acknowledges that there’s a lot of potential to do good by editing genes that don’t work correctly in a person that has a disease or genetic condition.

But she cautioned that scientists don’t yet understand how all the genes work in a developing embryo.  In the case of the Chinese twins, Burke said it’s unknown whether the alleged gene-editing could negatively affect the children, causing trouble for other parts of their genetic makeup or making them susceptible to other deadly viruses.

“When we take a leap in our research, it’s usually done with a very clear threat to health. These were healthy embryos,” Burke said.

In this case, she added, “he was doing a treatment that wasn’t necessarily necessary.”

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Bayla joined VPR in 2018 as the producer for Morning Edition. She left in 2019.
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