HONG KONG – China has shut down the work of the scientist who claimed to have facilitated the birth of the world's first babies with edited genes.
China's Ministry of Science and Technology ordered a halt to the scientific research activities of those involved with the work of He Jiankui, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. He claimed to have used CRISPR/cas9 genome editing technology to edit the genes of twin embryos to make them resistant to HIV infection. (See BioWorld, Nov. 27, 2018.)
"The gene-edited twins matter reported by the media has brazenly violated Chinese laws and regulations and breached the science ethics bottom line, which is both shocking and unacceptable," said Xu Nanping, vice minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology, in an interview with Xinhua, China's state-owned national news agency.
Though CRISPR has been hailed as an innovation with enormous potential, many in the scientific community say the technology is still in its early stages and not ready for application in human embryos yet.
The twin girls were born recently, and He claims they are healthy.
"I believe that for millions of children in the EU, vaccines [for HIV infection] are not available. I also have personal experience with AIDS villages. People even have to give their children to relatives just to prevent transmission," said He earlier this week during the 2nd International Human Genome Editors Summit in Hong Kong.
He said he disabled the CCR5 gene, which produces a protein that allows HIV to enter blood cells. In theory, it could make the unborn children resistant to an infection from the HIV virus carried by their HIV-positive father.
"I feel proud, because the father lost hope in life [before the trial]. I will work hard for his sake," said He. During a press conference in Hong Kong, He defended his work and also claims to have initiated a second pregnancy. (See story this issue.)
But many have decried the safety and ethics of his decisions. Government departments in China have openly condemned He's work. "We are very concerned about the event regarding the HIV-resistant, gene-edited baby and the relevant department is conducting an investigation to verify the matter," said China's National Health Commission in a statement.
"We care about and protect people's health and their rights. Any scientific research or medical activity must be conducted in accordance with the laws and regulations and ethic codes. Any acts that violate the laws and regulations will be sternly punished," according to the commission.
No punishments have been announced yet and it is uncertain what those might be, if any.
The Southern University of Science and Technology said He has been on leave from his position since February. An investigation is underway, so it is not clear if He will be returning to the institution.
In 2012, Chinese authorities meted out swift punishment to researchers and officials involved in what became known as the Golden Rice scandal, where school children were fed vitamin A-enriched, genetically modified rice without their consent.
Three researchers and three government officials who approved that program were arrested and fired. The researchers were barred from applying for grants.
It remains to be seen if similar disciplinary action will befall He.
Scientific associations, however, were quick to make their stances known.
The Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences issued a statement against He's work, citing ethics. "We oppose any gene editing clinical work on embryo conducted for the purpose of reproduction that lacks scientific evaluation, violates the laws and regulations and ethic codes. China prohibits genetic operation on human gametes, zygotes and embryos for the purpose of reproduction."
The China Association for Science and Technology has revoked He's qualification to take part in the 15th Technology Award for Chinese Youth.
"We are deeply disturbed and we strongly condemn the relevant personnel and institutions that blatantly challenge the ethical bottom line and insult science," said Huai Jinpeng, party chief and executive vice chairman of the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST).
Huai described He's work to Chinese state media as "extremely abominable in nature" and said that it has seriously damaged the image and interests of the Chinese scientific community. The people involved "brazenly challenged the bottom line of scientific research ethics and desecrated the spirit of science."