China scientist condemned for gene-editing babies, loses job

He Jiankui fired by Shenzhen-based university as China says he defied government bans in pursuit of personal profit.

    He Jiankui shocked the scientific community in November after announcing he had successfully altered the genes of twin girls to prevent them from contracting HIV [Kin Cheung/AP]
    He Jiankui shocked the scientific community in November after announcing he had successfully altered the genes of twin girls to prevent them from contracting HIV [Kin Cheung/AP]

    A Chinese scientist who claimed to have created the world's first genetically edited babies has been accused of circumventing regulations and acting in his own interests, in the preliminary findings of an official investigation into the case as the academic was fired from his job.

    State news agency Xinhua on Monday reported that He Jiankui had "defied government bans and conducted the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain".

    It added that the investigation also found a second woman had become pregnant as a result of the experiment. 

    The Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in the city of Shenzhen, said it had fired the researcher. 

    He Jiankui shocked the scientific community last year after announcing he had successfully altered the genes of twin girls born in November to prevent them from contracting HIV.    

    He told a human genome forum in Hong Kong that month that there had been "another potential pregnancy" involving a second couple, but when questioned further said the woman had had a miscarriage.

    The investigation confirmed the woman was still pregnant, Xinhua said. 

    She would be put under medical observation along with the twin girls from the first pregnancy, it added.

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

    'Evaded oversight'

    He, the scientist, said the twins' DNA was modified using a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes.

    Experts worry meddling with the genome of an embryo could harm not only an individual but also future generations who inherit these same changes.

    Hundreds of Chinese and international scientists condemned He and said the use of gene-editing on human embryos for reproductive purposes was unethical.

    Chinese authorities denounced He's work as "extremely abominable" at the end of November, suspended him from his job and began investigating his activities.

    The academic "deliberately evaded oversight" with the intent of creating a gene-edited baby "for the purpose of reproduction", the investigating team set up by the Health Commission of China in southern Guangdong province found, according to Xinhua.

    The safety and efficacy of the technologies He used were unreliable, the report said. It stressed that creating gene-edited babies for reproduction is banned by national decree.

    He's university distanced itself from him as soon as the experiment was revealed, suspending him from work. 

    On Monday, it announced 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 university said in a statement on its website on Monday.

    Neither He nor a representative could be reached for comment.

    He's announcement sparked a debate among Chinese legal scholars over which laws He had 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.

    Information on those suspected of committing crimes had been sent to the Ministry of Public Security, Xinhua said.

    An embryo receives a small dose of Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA in a sperm injection microscope in He's laboratory in Shenzhen before his work was suspended [File: Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo] 

    'Seeking personal fame and profit'

    Xinhua said He raised funds independently and privately organised a team of people to carry out the procedure, adding that he had forged ethical review papers in order to enlist volunteers for the procedure.

    Eight volunteer couples - HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers - signed up for the trial, investigators found, with one couple dropping out halfway through.

    Speaking at the genome summit in Hong Kong in November, He said he was "proud" of altering the genes of the babies, given the stigma affecting those living with the virus in the country.

    But such gene-editing work is banned in most countries, including China.

    He will be "dealt with seriously according to the law," and his case will be "handed over to public security organs for handling," Xinhua said.

    This is not the first time Chinese researchers have experimented with human embryo technology.

    In 2017, scientists at Sun Yat-sen University used an adapted version of gene-editing to correct a disease-causing mutation in human embryos.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies