‘Scientist Behind Gene-Edited Babies to Face Punitive Action’
Scientist behind gene-editing conducted research for personal gain, to face punitive action: Chinese authorities
Chinese authorities on 21 January said the scientist who claimed to have created the world's first genetically-edited babies will be punished for defying government bans and conducting the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain.
They also confirmed that a second woman became pregnant during the "unauthorised" experiment conducted by the scientist He Jiankui.
The Chinese researcher shocked the scientific community in November last year after he announced that he had successfully altered the DNA of twin baby girls born that month with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life to prevent them from contracting HIV.
He's announcement drew flak from the global and domestic scientific communities, which termed his experiment as unethical. Subsequently, the Chinese authorities launched a probe against the scientist, popularly known as "JK".
A preliminary investigation shows that He had "defied government bans and conducted the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain", state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Terming He's experiments as "unauthorised", the investigators said while one volunteer delivered the twins, Lulu and Nana, another lady became pregnant during the experiments.
He’s activities seriously violated ethical principles and scientific integrity and breached relevant regulations of China, the investigators said.
He as well as other persons and organisations involved in the experiment will receive punishment. Those who are suspected of committing the crime will be transferred to public security department, they said.
The investigation team of the Guangdong province said the scientist has intentionally dodged supervision, raised funds and organised researchers on his own to carry out the human embryo gene-editing, which is explicitly banned by relevant regulations.
According to the investigation, He, who is an associate professor in the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology, started the project in 2016 and organised a team that included some overseas members.
The investigators said he conducted the gene-editing activities using technologies without safety and effectiveness guarantee, the Xinhua reported.
With a fake ethical review certificate, He recruited eight volunteer couples (the males tested positive, while the females tested negative for the HIV antibody) and carried out experiments from March 2017 to November 2018.
As HIV carriers are not allowed to have assisted reproduction, He asked others to replace the volunteers to take blood tests and asked researchers to edit genes on human embryos and implant them into the females' body.
Two volunteers became pregnant during the course of his experiment. While one gave birth to the twin girls, the other is yet to give birth. One couple quit the experiment halfway through and the other five did not conceive.
The babies and the pregnant volunteer will receive medical observation and follow-up visits. The Guangdong government will keep the twins under medical observation, according to a Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post report.
The government decision was welcomed by the scientific community.
A biologist, on condition of anonymity, told the Post, "This should be the way. There needs to be protection of the babies too." In an interview with Beijing Youth Daily, Shao Feng, Deputy Director of the National Institute of Biological Sciences, said the whole incident would need to be investigated thoroughly.
An expert in the field, Shao is worried about potential health risks the children will face as well as the incident's effect on the human race.
"Once the gate of gene-editing is wide open, the human race will be finished...The technology is strong but the terrifying fact is that anyone slightly trained in a lab can perform it," he said.
Meanwhile, He has not been seen in public since his announcement of creating the world’s first genetically-edited babies at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in November.
Some media reports claimed that he is being kept under house arrest or even detained by police.
A spokesperson of the Southern University of Science and Technology, He's employer, has previously dismissed talk of his detention as rumours.
China's Ministry of Science and Technology has ordered research institutes to suspend all of He's scientific projects.
An investigation into He's work found that the ethics review committee at the Harmonicare Women and Children's Hospital, which the scientist said had approved his research, was not registered with the city's health authorities.
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