‘Extremely abominable’: Chinese gene-editing scientist faces law

China condemns the work of He Jiankui as institutions distance themselves from the academic who gene-edited twin girls.

Scientist He Jiankui speaks at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong [Holly Chik/Reuters]
Scientist He Jiankui speaks at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong [Holly Chik/Reuters]

Shenzhen, ChinaChina has suspended He Jiankui – the scientist who claims to have produced the world’s first gene-edited babies. He now looks set to face punishment after publicly revealing research many in the scientific community condemned as irresponsible.

His work was “extremely abominable in nature”, Xi Nanping, vice minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology, told state news agency Xinhua late on Thursday.

Xi said genetically engineering the DNA of twin girls so they would not develop HIV, breached scientific ethics, adding that gene-editing of human embryos for reproduction purposes was “explicitly banned” in China.

He admitted at a gene-editing conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday that he had already initiated another pregnancy, although it was too soon to tell if it would go to full term.

An embryo receives a small dose of Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA in a sperm injection microscope in a laboratory in Shenzhen [Mark Schiefelbein/AP]

A source confirmed to Al Jazeera that He had returned to Shenzhen, although repeated calls to his mobile went unanswered and several messages sent to the phone were read with no response.

David Cyranoski of the journal Nature posted on social media that He was in the southern city and ready to “cooperate fully with all inquiries” about his work.

‘Resolutely dealt with’

The scientist is likely to face a barrage of questions from institutions in Shenzhen, as well as from the Ministry of Science and Technology. China’s National Health Commission said He’s activities would be investigated and any wrongdoing “resolutely dealt with”, according to Xinhua.

It is uncertain what punishment He may face since the law in China is vague on enforcement, according to Qiu Renzong, professor emeritus of the Institute of Philosophy and director of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

His research has sent shockwaves through the international scientific community, with many raising concerns over the lack of verified data and the risks of exposing healthy embryos to gene-editing. Scientists have long worried about the implications for humanity of such genetic engineering.

R Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, said if He had done the trial in the United States it “would have been in violation of public law” and involve “penalties [that] are both civil and criminal”. Approvals are needed through the Food and Drug Administration for human cells and therapy studies where cells are brought to gestation.

Police involvement?

Qiu noted in Hunan province in 2012, three researchers were arrested and then sacked along with three officials who approved trials of vitamin A-enriched genetically modified rice on schoolchildren without their consent.

“Three scientists were disciplined, they were dismissed from their positions, and they could not apply for grants over a certain period of time, so [He’s case] may be similar to this,” Qiu told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think the police will be involved, but the ministries will discipline him.”

He said in a video released on Sunday – the same day the world learned of the births – that he used the CRISPR-cas9 tool for editing the embryos in order to remove the possibility that the babies would get HIV from their father, who is infected with the virus.

Anthropologist Eben Kirksey remarked that CRISPR has become a magic word related to HIV because of the promise that “you only need to take the treatment once”. But, he added, there were many other promising therapies for treating HIV, and he didn’t think many in the HIV research community were “putting a lot of hope” in genetic editing.

Researcher Zhou Xiaoqin, left, loads Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA molecules into a fine glass pipette at He Jiankui’s laboratory in Shenzhen [Mark Schiefelbein/AP]

He gave a partial apology in front of a packed auditorium at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. The contrition, however, seemed to be more for the information about the births coming out before his research had been vetted by the scientific community, rather than for having carried it out.

The scientist told delegates he was “proud of” his work, adding that if the same situation occurred and it was his child he would “try it first”.

Most other researchers believed it was far too early to progress to that point given the vast ethical questions that arise from having “edited” – like Lulu and Nana, the names He gave the twin baby girls – and “non-edited” humans living side by side.

“Wouldn’t it be useful to try to define a global ethical code of conduct, at least a minimum of consent and what is research is and what is the standard?” asked Barbel Friedrich, director of the Alfried Krupp Institute for Advanced Studies in Greifswald. “What we heard this morning was a violation of law, which he admitted to, but what we need is a global rule.”

Institutions deny knowledge

Across the border in Shenzhen, institutions are distancing themselves from He.

Shenzhen’s Health and Family Planning Commission has directed the city’s medical expert committee to investigate He’s activities.

Southern University of Science and Technology, where He is an associate professor and is said to have conducted the research without the full knowledge of the university, has sealed off his lab and suspended him pending an investigation. The website on genome research related to He’s work now appears to be inaccessible.

A researcher adjusts a microplate containing embryos that have been injected with Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA in a laboratory in Shenzhen [Mark Schiefelbein/AP]

When Al Jazeera visited the researcher’s lab, situated on a sprawling campus in a hub of universities in the northern part of Shenzhen, security officers refused entry, complaining about media trying to visit the site. Communications department officials at the school did not respond to requests to discuss the investigation into He’s research activities.

At the main gate, a police van was parked across the road, its blue and red lights flashing.

Shenzhen Harmonicare Women and Children’s Hospital, where the fertilisation allegedly took place, now denies involvement in He’s work and has said it believes a signature on papers approving the experiment were falsified. Attempts to reach officials at the hospital for further explanation were not successful.

“We don’t know yet whether that was fabricated,” Qiu said of the papers. “Some scientists, out of other motivations, these young scientists, they want to make a lot of money.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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