Government investigators have confirmed a Chinese scientist’s claim of creating the world’s first genetically engineered babies, as well as the existence of a second pregnancy with a gene-edited embryo.
Back in November, scientist He Jiankui captured international attention when he claimed to have used the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas-9 to alter two embryos. He maintained that the alterations would protect the embryos from HIV infection later in life, though other experts say that the editing was flawed and could put the babies at risk for future health problems. Though He presented results on the twin girls (“Lulu” and “Nana”) at a genetics conference in Hong Kong, he did not release all of his data, publish his results in an academic journal, or otherwise provide definitive proof that the experiment had taken place. Bioethicists, geneticists, and other Chinese scientists were horrified by the news, and rumors swirled that He had gone missing or was possibly put under house arrest.
Now, a preliminary investigation by authorities in the province of Guangdong (where the scientist works) confirms the births and states that He “defied government bans and conducted the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain,” according to Xinhua, a Chinese state-run newspaper. The report paints a picture of a lone scientist who raised funds on his own, faked ethical review documents, and is likely to face serious charges. He’s research was halted by the Chinese government last year, and he has since been fired from the Southern University of Science and Technology. Lulu and Nana will be placed under medical observation.
It’s still unclear what charges He might face, whether the gene editing in the second pregnancy was HIV-related, or what will become of this second pregnancy. Still, the case has sparked a widespread discussion around China’s rules for this type of biomedical research. In November, former vice minister of health Huang Jiefu suggested that the country should establish an organization to oversee biomedical experiments. Meanwhile, Wang Yue, a health law research at Peking University, told The New York Times that because traditionally, “the legal responsibility is unclear and the penalties are very light,” China needs to enact stricter regulations.