Chinese Scientist Behind Gene-Edited Babies Fired by University

By Reuters
January 21, 2019Chinashare
Chinese Scientist Behind Gene-Edited Babies Fired by University
Scientist He Jiankui speaks at his company Direct Genomics in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China on July 18, 2017. (Reuters)

SHENZHEN, China—A Chinese scientist who created what he said were the world’s first “gene-edited” babies evaded oversight and broke ethical boundaries in a quest for fame and fortune, state media said Jan. 21, as his former university said he had been fired.

He Jiankui said in November that he used a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born that month, sparking an international outcry about the ethics and safety of such research.

Hundreds of scientists around the world condemned He and said any application of gene editing on human embryos for reproductive purposes was unethical.

Chinese authorities also denounced He and issued a temporary halt to research activities involving the editing of human genes.

A report by state-run media Xinhua cited recent findings from an investigation by local health authorities, where it found that He had “deliberately evaded oversight” and raised funds himself to carry out the procedure in order to “seek personal fame and profit,” adding that he had forged ethical review papers in order to enlist volunteers for the procedure.

The Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in the city of Shenzhen, said in a statement on its website that He had been fired.

“Effective immediately, SUSTech will rescind the work contract with Dr. He Jiankui and terminate any of his teaching and research activities at SUSTech,” the statement said.

Though Chinese authorities have consistently denied involvement, images of He’s “Ethical Review Application Form” have since circulated online. Visible in the photo are an official stamp from the Shenzhen Hemei Women and Children’s Hospital and signatures of seven Ethics Committee members.

Meanwhile, China observers also note that such an expensive project would not have been possible without support from high-level authorities—especially as SUSTech claimed that He was on unpaid leave since Feb. 2018.

A Sept. 2018 TV special on China’s state broadcaster had also highlighted and praised He’s genetics research.

Neither He nor a representative could be reached for comment on Jan. 21. He defended his actions at a conference in Hong Kong in November, saying that he was “proud” of what he had done and that gene editing would help protect the girls from being infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

International experts in genetic science said they hoped the Jan. 21 report was only the initial result of investigations into He and that more action would be taken.

“The report will hopefully set an example with appropriate legal and punitive actions to reassure the public and scientific community,” said Yalda Jamshidi, a genomics expert at Britain’s University of London.

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

Helen O’Neill, a reproductive science expert at University College London, said she was concerned that the report gave “no further clarification on what measures will be taken to prevent this happening in the future, nor what will be done as punishment.”

By Christian Shepherd & Sue-Lin Wong

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