Chinese scientist criticized for risking ‘gene-edited’ babies’ lives

He Jiankui sparked an international scientific and ethical row when used a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born in November. (AP)
Updated 08 January 2019
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Chinese scientist criticized for risking ‘gene-edited’ babies’ lives

  • He Jiankui sparked an international scientific and ethical row when he used a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born in November
  • ‘Pretty much everyone he talked to had said to him: ‘Don’t do it’’

LONDON: A leading geneticist who ran the conference where a Chinese scientist said he had made the world’s first “gene-edited” babies condemned him on Monday for potentially jeopardizing lives and having no biology training.
Robin Lovell-Badge, organizer of the November 2018 event where China’s He Jiankui made his controversial presentation, described him as a rich man with a “huge ego” who “wanted to do something he thinks will change the world.”
He Jiankui, associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, sparked an international scientific and ethical row when he said he had used a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born in November.
He did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. Chinese authorities are investigating him and have meanwhile halted this kind of research.
In videos posted online and at the conference, He said he believed his gene editing would help protect the girls from infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Lovell-Badge, a professor and gene expert at Britain’s Francis Crick Institute who led the organizing committee for the November Human Genome Editing Summit at Hong Kong University, said it was impossible to know what He had actually done.
“If it’s true (that he edited the genomes in the way he says) then it is certainly possible that he has put the children’s lives at risk,” he told journalists in London.
“No-one knows what these mutations will do.”
Lovell-Badge said he originally invited He to the conference after hearing in scientific circles that he was “up to something.” Lovell-Badge hoped that asking He to interact with specialists would encourage him to “control his urges.”
“Pretty much everyone he talked to had said to him: ‘Don’t do it’,” he said. “But clearly it was all too late.”
Lovell-Badge said he learned of He’s claims on the eve of the conference, and had an emergency meeting with him.
“He thought that he was doing good, and that what he was doing was the next big thing,” Lovell-Badge said. But he had “no basic training in biology” and the experiments he said he had carried out “ignored all the norms of how you conduct any clinical trial or clinical experiment.”
“He should certainly be stopped from doing anything like this again,” he said.
Lovell-Badge said he had not heard from He since early December, but understood he was in Shenzhen in a guarded apartment during the probe.
Chinese authorities and institutions, as well as hundreds of international scientists, have condemned He and said any application of gene editing on human embryos for reproductive purposes was against the law and medical ethics of China.


Chinese scientist who gene-edited babies fired by university

Updated 21 January 2019
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Chinese scientist who gene-edited babies fired by university

  • Hundreds of Chinese and international scientists condemned He Jiankui
  • Chinese authorities also denounced He and issued a temporary halt to research activities involving the editing of human genes

SHENZHEN, China: A Chinese scientist responsible for what he said were the world’s first “gene-edited” babies evaded oversight and broke guidelines in a quest for fame and fortune, state media said on Monday, as the university where he worked announced his dismissal.
He Jiankui said in November that he used a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born that month, sparking an international outcry about the ethics and safety of such research.
Hundreds of Chinese and international scientists condemned He and said any application of gene editing on human embryos for reproductive purposes was unethical.
Chinese authorities also denounced He and issued a temporary halt to research activities involving the editing of human genes.
He had “deliberately evaded oversight” with the intent of creating a gene-edited baby “for the purpose of reproduction,” according to the initial findings of an investigating team set up by the Health Commission of China in southern Guangdong province, Xinhua news agency reported.
He had raised funds himself and privately organized a team of people to carry out the procedure in order to “seek personal fame and profit,” Xinhua said, adding that he had forged ethical review papers in order to enlist volunteers for the procedure.
The safety and efficacy of the technologies He used are unreliable and creating gene-edited babies for reproduction is banned by national decree, the report said.
The Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in the city of Shenzhen, said in a statement on its website that He had been fired.
“Effective immediately, SUSTech will rescind the work contract with Dr. Jiankui He and terminate any of his teaching and research activities at SUSTech,” the statement said.
The university added the decision came after a preliminary investigation by the Guangdong Province Investigation Task Force.
Neither He nor a representative could be reached for comment on Monday.
He defended his actions at a conference in Hong Kong in November, saying that he was “proud” of what he had done and that gene editing would help protect the girls from being infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
He’s announcement sparked a debate among Chinese legal scholars over which laws He had technically broken by carrying out the procedure, as well as whether he could be held criminally responsible or not.
Many scholars pointed to a 2003 guideline that bans altered human embryos from being implanted for the purpose of reproduction, and says altered embryos cannot be developed for more than 14 days.
The case files of those involved who are suspected of committing crimes had been sent to the ministry of public security, an unnamed spokesperson for the investigation team was quoted by Xinhua as saying.