China, Gene Editing

Chinese government probe condemns Jiankui He as rogue scientist pursuing ‘illegal’ work on gene-edited babies

When Jiankui He first proclaimed the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies in an announcement that attracted global condemnation, he was quickly disavowed by his university and the affiliate hospitals implicated in the project, which largely distanced themselves from the work. Two months later, the government commission tasked with investigating the incident is backing these institutions and painting him as a lone rogue scientist who skirted multiple laws and regulations in pursuit of personal gains.

He “raised money on his own, deliberately avoided regulations, and organized related personnel in private to implement gene editing of the human embryo for the purpose of reproduction, which is clearly prohibited by the country,” state-owned Xinhua News reported, quoting the Guangdong investigators.

Notably, investigators seem to confirm a second pregnancy — mentioned in passing during He’s only public defense of his work.

“Regarding the born babies and pregnant volunteer(s),” Xinhua wrote, “the Guangdong province will conduct medical observation and follow-up under supervision from related national departments.”

As for He and his associates, they will be “handled in seriousness” according to related rules, with any crimes being referred to the police.

The brief report offered a timeline on the instances that He operated on the edges of law:

  • June 2016: He assembled a project team that included overseas participants, “consciously avoiding regulation” in using a technology with uncertain safety and efficacy to carry out an activity prohibited by the nation.
  • March 2017 to November 2018: With forged ethical review documents, He recruited eight volunteer couples (with HIV-positive husbands and HIV-negative wives) for the experiment. To work around the rule that HIV carriers may not participate in assisted reproduction, he arranged for others to take blood tests in place of the volunteers. He instructed staffers to edit human embryos and implant them into the mother, resulting in two volunteers getting pregnant. One of them gave birth to twin girls Lulu and Nana.

Southern University of Science and Technology, where He has worked since first returning from the US, has rescinded its work contract with He and terminated his teaching and research at the institution.

He stunned the scientific world late last year after he appeared at a scientific conference in Hong Kong and outlined his project using CRISPR to disable a key gene in order to confer immunity to HIV for the newborns — who were exposed to the threat by an HIV-positive parent. The scientist insisted he was proud of what he’s done for the family.


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