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China ‘hands over’ scientist who edited embryo genes to police

Chinese biomedical researcher Dr. Jiankui He. (Begoon/Wikimedia Commons)
January 23, 2019

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

Chinese scientist He Jiankui is to face a police investigation in the southern city of Shenzhen after he edited the genes of human embryos, as details emerged of a second woman carrying a baby genetically modified by him, state media reported.

Authorities in the southern province of Guangdong began an investigation into the activities of the geneticist and Stanford University graduate after he claimed at a biomedical conference in Hong Kong in November to have edited the genes of twin babies to confer immunity to HIV.

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

Since the conference ended, He has been under close surveillance, and accused of academic fraud and bioethics violations by state news agency Xinhua.

“It is out of personal fame and wealth that Chinese scientist He Jiankui conducted the notorious experiment to create the world’s first gene-edited babies,” Xinhua reported on Monday.

“He and [others] involved will be handed over to the police and will be dealt with seriously in accordance with relevant laws and regulations,” it said.

He’s actions “seriously violated ethics and morality as well as credibility and integrity in the field of scientific research,” the agency said.

“He undertook human embryo gene-editing for reproduction, which is clearly prohibited in China,” the agency said, quoting the head of the Guangdong provincial investigation team.

Lax regulations

The report accused He of using “fake” blood samples to get around Chinese law preventing people with HIV from taking part in aided reproduction.

It said two of the study’s eight volunteers became pregnant, with one giving birth to twin girls known only as Lulu and Nana. “The other is still pregnant,” Xinhua said, adding that the two mothers would be kept under medical observation and offered follow-up appointments.

William Hurlbut, a physician and bioethicist at Stanford who has known He for two years, told Agence France-Presse that he last heard from him seven days ago.

Heng He, a U.S.-based commentator with a PhD in biology, said the fact that He had managed to complete a cutting-edge and highly controversial procedure at all showed how lax ethical and medical regulation is in China.

“Why can’t you do this anywhere in the world, and yet you can do it in China?” Heng said. “At the very least, it shows that there is very little regulation of clinical trials on humans in China.”

“In the U.S., if you want to work with human subjects, you have to undergo layer upon layer of approvals; it’s very strict,” she said. “That’s why so many drugs trials and clinical studies have relocated to China, because the regulation is very lax there.”

Former National Institutes of Health researcher Yao Xianglan said the consequences of He’s gene-editing for the babies involved are hard to predict.

“The CCR5 gene that he edited is a normal gene that everyone has,” Yao said. “Once you remove it, you don’t know if there will be side-effects, and the concern is that the side-effects will outweigh the effects of the treatment.”