The Chinese government has issued a condemnation over one of its scientists’ claim that he had successfully created gene-edited babies. Meanwhile, the scientist, He Jiankui, is said to be missing, with no one reportedly seeing him after the declaration.
Praise and condemnation over gene-edited babies
He Jiankui made the shocking revelation at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. According to the scientist, twin sisters were born in November from the embryos he had gene-edited previously. He had disabled a gene related to HIV infection, meaning that the children were born without the risk of inheriting HIV from their parents.
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Initially, the Chinese media celebrated He’s achievement, with some claiming that a Nobel Prize may be in sight. However, as the gravity of the matter set in and people started to understand the moral complications of He’s experiments, media and the public started rebuking him for toying with nature. He’s own university, the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), was one of the first to issue a condemnation, trying to distance themselves from the scientist’s research.
“The research was conducted outside of the campus and was not reported to the University nor the Department. The University and the Department were unaware of the research project and its nature. The SUSTech Department of Biology Academic Committee believes that Dr. Jiankui HE’s conduct in utilizing CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct. All research conducted at SUSTech is required to abide by laws and regulations, and comply with international academic ethics and codes of conduct,” the university said in a statement (SUSTech).
The university plans to invite a few international experts to investigate the claim and eventually release results to the public. The organizer of the event stated that He’s project was “despicable” and will potentially damage the country’s image among the international scientific community. Later on, the Chinese government also condemned the incident and promised to punish those involved in the experiment of the gene-edited babies.
“China has banned reproductive use of gene editing in human embryos… The experiment has violated laws and regulations in China,” Xu Nanping, the vice-minister of science and technology, said in a statement (South China Morning Post). The government has reportedly asked the institutes where He Jiankui works to immediately cease all his scientific projects.
Career risk and disappearance
As far as the scientist is concerned, the revelation has put his entire career at high risk. Instead of the praise that he may have expected, he has been heaped with condemnation for attempting human genetic editing. He Jiankui was expected to run for China’s 15th Science and Technology Award for Young Scientists. But as of now, he is suspended from consideration for the award.
Interestingly, He Jiankui has been missing ever since his speech in Hong Kong. Though several media outlets suggested that he was accompanied by the SUSTech University President back home and has been put under house arrest, there has been no official confirmation on the matter.
Seven couples are said to have participated in He’s experiment, with all the males being carriers of HIV. Though they are said to have given informed consent, He’s own website shows that the consent forms were titled “AIDS vaccine development project.” As such, it is unclear as to whether the participating couples actually understood what was being done to their gene-edited babies.