Chinese scientist who made world’s first gene-edited babies ‘evaded oversight to seek fame’, say authorities

A Chinese scientist who claimed he created the world’s first gene-edited babies was working in secret in the hope of gaining fame and fortune, according to a government investigation.

Dr He Jiankui faced international condemnation when he said in November he had overseen the birth of twins with altered DNA that made them resistant to HIV.

According to Chinese news agency Xinhua, the scientist’s self-funded work contravened national guidelines and he will be punished for any wrongdoing, 

Investigators from the Health Commission of China in southern Guangdong province said he had “deliberately evaded oversight”.

The report did not state which laws the researcher might have violated, but noted he had faked an ethical review apparently conducted by others.

“This behaviour seriously violates ethics and the integrity of scientific research, is in serious violation of relevant national regulations and creates a pernicious influence at home and abroad,” it said. 

Dr He revealed his work to the world at a conference in Hong Kong after press reports began circulating, but he has still not released any data to back up his claims.

Nevertheless, other scientists think it is likely the experiments did take place, and the report from the Chinese authorities adds further support.

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British geneticist Professor Robin Lovell-Badge pointed out the Chinese scientist had no background in biology, and appeared to not fully grasp the implications of his work.

While the technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 has seen a vast leap forward in recent years, it is still considered unsafe and unethical to apply it to human embryos with the intention of producing gene-edited humans.

However, there is still confusion about which laws Dr He and his team have technically broken.

Legal scholars have pointed to a guideline that bans altered human embryos from being implanted for the purpose of reproduction, and says altered embryos cannot be developed for more than two weeks.

An unnamed spokesperson from the investigating team said the case files of all those involved who were suspected of committing crimes had been sent to the ministry of public security.

Chinese authorities have temporarily suspended all research involving human gene editing, and Dr He is apparently residing under armed guard at a university guesthouse

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Dr Helen O’Neill, a reproductive scientist at University College London, said the new report still did not shed light on the full story.

“There is no further clarification on what measures will be taken to prevent this happening in future, nor what will be done as punishment for He Jiankui’s lack of regard for policy, the patients and the scientific community,” she said.

Additional reporting by agencies


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