In 2018, He Jiankui uploaded a series of videos to a YouTube channel titled “The He Lab” that detailed one of the first instances of a successful human birth after genome editing had been performed on an embryo using CRISPR-cas9. CRISPR-cas9 is a genome editing tool derived from bacteria that can be used to cut out and replace specific sequences of DNA. He genetically modified embryos at his lab in Shenzhen, China, to make them immune to contracting HIV through indirect perinatal transmission from their father, who was infected with the virus. HIV is a virus that attacks the immune cells of its host and weakens their ability to fight off diseases. At the time of He’s experiment, various treatments already existed at that could prevent the fetuses from contracting HIV without the need for gene surgery. Nonetheless, He’s experiment led to one of the first successful births of fetuses resulting from genetically modified embryos. He kept his experiment secret until he uploaded the videos announcing the birth of the fetuses, born as two twin girls. The experiment discussed in the videos was successful, but many scientists criticized the experiment due to ethical concerns with the way He conducted it.

In 1964, Jerome Horwitz synthesized the drug zidovudine, commonly abbreviated ZDV, otherwise known as azidothymidine, or AZT, at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan. Horwitz and his colleagues originally developed zidovudine to treat cancers caused by retroviruses. In 1983, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine recipients Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier discovered a new retrovirus, the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France. HIV weakens the immune system and can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus in utero, or in the womb. In 1984, scientist Marty St. Clair and her team determined that zidovudine could help treat HIV. Zidovudine was the first medicine discovered to help treat HIV and prevent the transmission of HIV from affected pregnant women to fetuses in the womb by blocking the virus from passing through the placenta.

Subscribe to AIDS Virus