China has declared the controversial human gene-editing research by He Jiankui illegal. Jiankui announced in November that he had successfully created the world’s first gene-edited babies using the CRISPR technology.
China has begun investigating the claims made by Dr. He and say they will not hesitate to prosecute him for any illegal activity.
He, is a former employee of Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology but was reportedly on unpaid leave at the time of his controversial research.
The initial findings of the Chinese probe into He’s work has been published by China’s official news agency Xinhua. It states that the doctor forged ethics approvals which he then used to convince eight couples to participate in clinical procedures between March 2017 and November 2018.
Twins' genes might have been genetically altered
The clinical trial resulted in two pregnancies, one of which led to a full term pregnancy of twin girls and another in which the baby is yet to be born. Five couples did not conceive, and one couple pulled out of the study.
He’s announcement caused an uproar in both the scientific community and amongst the general public. CRISPR is still a relatively new technology and has the potential to do great genetic harm.
As a result of He’s announcement, some scientists called for a moratorium on CRISPR until clearer ethical guidelines have been developed.
Many countries have strict rules prohibiting gene-editing of human embryos for reproductive purposes. In January, it was reported that He was likely under house arrest on the Southern University of Science and Technology of China campus.
Photos captured the disgraced professor on a balcony in an apartment block on the sprawling campus, but he has not made a public appearance since defending his actions in Hong Kong, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing on November 28, 2018.
Science community shocked by unethical research
He claims that he edited the baby’s genes to become more HIV / AIDS-resistant. While Dr. He did not provide hard proof of his claims, he did provide some data that led many experts to believe it is possible his claims were true.
It is unclear if there has been any further research or monitoring of the baby twins or who would be responsible for overseeing their development.
William Hurlburt, a bioethicist from Stanford University told the Guardian that he had met Dr. He at a conference and had maintained contact with him afterward.
“I knew that was his long-term goal. I just didn’t think he would push so imprudently,” Hurlburt said.
“I worried his enthusiasm for what he was doing was so high that he might proceed faster than he should … Now the door is open to this and will never close again. It’s like a hinge of history.”