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Chinese scientist under investigation amid furor over gene-edited babies

A small sample of DNA is added to a product gel to see if the amplification process worked Aug. 24, 2016, at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System on Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. The product gel is run through an electrical current for 15 minutes to separate the DNA by size. (Senior Airman Ashlin Federick/U.S. Air Force)
November 29, 2018

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have announced an investigation into the activities of a geneticist who claimed to have edited the genes of twin babies to confer immunity to HIV.

Stanford University graduate He Jiankui said the twins’ DNA was modified using CRISPR, a technique which allows scientists to remove and replace a strand of genetic material with pinpoint precision.

He told a biomedical conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday that his clinical trial was currently on “pause,” however, pending an official investigation.

“The clinical trial was paused due to the current situation,” He told delegates. “For this specific case [of the twins], I feel proud, actually, I feel proudest.”

He said the twin girls were born a few weeks ago after their DNA was altered to prevent them from contracting HIV. Eight volunteer couples—HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers—had signed up to the trial, with one dropping out before it was paused, he said.

“The volunteers were informed of the risk posed by the existence of one potential off-target and they decided to implant,” He said, while appearing at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong.

China’s National Health Commission has ordered an “immediate investigation” into He’s activities, according to a statement on its website.

“This committee is extremely concerned about media reports on Nov. 26 that ‘gene-edited babies will be immune to AIDS’,” the statement said. “We are ordering an immediate investigation and verification by the health authorities in Guangdong province.”

“This should focus on the principles of responsibility for the health of the people and ethical science,” it said. “It should be carried out according to law and regulations, and the results should be made public as a matter of urgency.”

He’s home institution, the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology (SUST) condemned his actions and announced it would cooperate fully with the official investigation.

“We are deeply saddened by this incident,” the university’s biology department said in a post to the school’s official social media account.

“We express our firm opposition and strong condemnation to the rash conduct of the genetic editing of human embryos in a clinical setting under any circumstance forbidden by law, or where ethical and safety standards haven’t been fully tested,” the statement said.

“This is a serious breach of academic and moral standards.”

Meanwhile, a union of Chinese scientists issued a statement saying it “resolutely opposes so-called scientific research and biotech applications that violate the spirit of science and ethics,” state news agency Xinhua reported.

He said on Wednesday that he had funded much of the study himself, working with the Baihualin voluntary organization for people living with HIV and AIDS.

“The results of this study were submitted to a scientific journal review, and I also thank Southern University of Science and Technology, even if they did not know about the research,” he told the conference.

When asked about the source of research funding, He said the study had started out with funding from SUST, but had later paid participants’ medical expenses through his company.

Criticism of study

Zhang Feng, an MIT scientist who attended the conference, said He’s study was risky and should be halted.

“I think this technology needs more development and improvement,” he said. “There are still many questions that need to be answered. Only then can you deeply consider how to develop this technology … for use in embryos.”

Baihualin’s founder Bai Hua told Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK that he didn’t fully understand the research, and regretted involving the participants.

Conference co-organizer David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from the California Institute of Technology He’s work didn’t meet criteria many scientists agreed on several years ago before gene editing could be considered, and would therefore be considered “irresponsible.”

“I personally don’t think that it was medically necessary,” Baltimore told the conference, adding that the study showed a “failure of self-regulation by the scientific community.”

Qiu Renzong, honorary director of the Center for Applied Ethics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it was unacceptable that He’s research had been published via the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s online mouthpiece, the People’s Daily website.

“The People’s Daily is a government operation, but the results of scientific research should be published in scientific journals, not in the media,” Qiu told RFA. “It is appalling for scientific research to be published in the media, and it means it is probably fake, or unscientific, and won’t stand up to scrutiny.”

Qiu said He has been suspended from SUST, and that his research plan hadn’t been approved by its academic committee.

Chinese media reported that He’s office and laboratory has now been shut down and sealed off with warning notices as the official investigation, launched on Nov. 27, continues.

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.