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Biotechnology

Scientist behind birth of gene-edited babies will be punished, Chinese investigators say

Report says He Jiankui sought fame and fortune when creating CRISPR-edited human embryos

by Ryan Cross
January 22, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 4

 

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Credit: National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine/Flickr
He Jiankui at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on Nov. 27, 2018

He Jiankui, the scientist responsible for the birth of the first genetically-engineered human babies, will face punishment, according to C&EN’s translation of a report from China’s state media agency, Xinhua.

In late November, He shocked the world when MIT Technology Review revealed the birth of the twin girls whose genes were edited with CRISPR-Cas9 when they were embryos. The project was conducted secretly and without ethical oversight. He’s goal was to introduce a mutation that could make the twin girls—whom he calls Lulu and Nana—resistant to HIV infection.

The Guangdong Province Investigation Task Force said that He severely breached ethical and moral principles, according to the Xinhua report. The investigators determined that He funded the project himself, intentionally evaded regulations, and conducted the experiment to seek fame and financial gain.

Following the Xinhua report, the Southern University of Science and Technology immediately fired He, where he was an associate professor. He had been on unpaid leave from the university since February 2018.

The Guangdong investigators determined that He began building a team for the experiment in June 2016. In March 2017, He forged a document suggesting that the study was approved by an ethics board. And through November 2018, He and his team recruited eight couples to participate in the study where embryos created in the lab were edited with CRISPR and then implanted via in vitro fertilization, the Xinhua report says.

All the female participants were HIV negative and all the males were HIV positive. Because HIV carriers are prohibited from seeking assisted reproduction in China, He arranged for other people to undergo blood tests instead of the study participants. One couple dropped out of the study, and five didn’t conceive after the gene-edited embryos were implanted. One couple had twin girls that were born last year. Another couple is expecting, meaning a third gene-edited baby could be born this year.

In a document signed in March 2017, He says his work will surpass the importance of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which was awarded for the development of in vitro fertilization. In that document, posted on the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry, He also says his gene editing experiment will be the beginning of a new era for treating countless hereditary diseases.

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Although some scientists support the future use of embryo editing to treat certain severe diseases, scientists, ethicists, and clinicians were nearly unanimous in their critique of He’s work, saying it lacked scientific merit. There are easier, safer ways to prevent HIV infection, and analyses of He’s preliminary results suggest the editing didn’t work as well as intended.

The Guangdong investigators said that He violated regulations prohibiting human embryo editing for reproductive purposes, and that He and others involved in his work will be “seriously dealt with in accordance with relevant laws and regulations,” the Xinhua report says. The Guangdong province will also follow the two babies and the pregnant volunteer.

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Comments
Shaaban ElNaggar, PhD (January 23, 2019 3:53 PM)
Yes indeed currently there are other acceptable procedures to do what He has “unethically” has done, however, this kind of technology eventually will be used to address many other human problems and has to gaudedly and carefully practiced untill it is fully understood and proven correct. Yes, we do not know the full impact on the resulting humans out of this experiment in a one or two generation future. But doing so, these experiments, is a risk that humans have taken all over the history of mankind since discovering the fire, and everything advancement accomplished until unleashing the energy of the atom were all great risk and had soo many victims? All of us want our offsprings to be better than ourselves and have better chance in surviving the brutal evolutionary process. That we face every minute in our existence. Please let the regulated process of this kind of work in motion for the advancement of the human race. Also by the same talken , let us all have control random human procreation in places where millions of unwanted pregnancies happens everyday, unwanted babies come in and cannot find home or food or water, that would be more appropriate and more highly ethical than stopping or punishing Dr He. I
Paul Dobrowolski (January 23, 2019 6:39 PM)
I call on US scientists, ethicists and policy makers to develop rules that would outlaw any type of gene-editing in embryonic human beings, even "gene-editing to treat certain severe diseases." Since this type of research probably ends the lives of more embryos that are not successfully implanted, we need to have rules and penalties in place to prevent any further loss of life. Additionally, in vitro fertilization in the US needs these same types of controls since it is the leading industry that ends early human life.
Chad (January 24, 2019 7:49 AM)
IVF creates life, not destroys it. Without it, the couples engaging in it would almost always remain infertile, and none of the gametes or hypothetical souls waiting for a body to occupy would have any chance of a life here on earth. They would unanimously agree to have their potential parents undergo IVF, even if they knew that there was a possibility of excess embryos that would be destroyed or donated to research. So it is rational to assume consent on their part.
Paul Dobrowolski (January 24, 2019 9:12 AM)
Chad, IVF scientists in the industry would agree with me that they destroy as many human lives as they start (not create). Selection of an acceptable embryo leaves behind many discarded embryos. Also, selective reduction (or abortion) of unwanted IVF fetuses in the mother's womb is common in the industry. It would be great to hear from IVF scientists of their observations concerning this point.
True, many couples have given birth to their children through IVF. But let's not forget that the Dr. He along with the US IVF industry does not respect all of the embryos they begin in a petri dish. The resulting destruction and/or storage of unused embryos is ethically wrong in my opinion.
Edyta (January 28, 2019 4:40 AM)
But an embryo is not a child! This is typical Polish-Catholic speech, which I will not accept as a mother, who thanks to science had the opportunity to give birth to her only child.
P (January 29, 2019 9:34 AM)
But the human embryo is a human being, as most embryology text books state. We seem to forget this crucial scientific fact when discussing abortion, IVF and gene-edited embryos.
I challenge C&ENews to educate their readers in future articles on this proven but conveniently forgotten fact. With this information, we must come to the conclusion that when human life is destroyed in any research or current technology, morally unacceptable lines are crossed.
Dr.Paul C. Li (January 24, 2019 12:55 AM)
Dear Honorable Ed.in Chief: Laser was considered to make chemicals corresponding to specific bond energies designed by nature in lifeless fashion. I am still in strong belief that it can be done till the time and techniques are engineered and rippened for creation. On the other hand, Mr. He’s work to fashion a real life proceeded much faster than the lifeless one.I don’t blame him.
We don’t play god to judge him right or wrong, ethics or not. Because nothing is forever, and most importantly, there is always a better way for us to keep the world better as long as we string all the good chemistries to live a happier life on one’s ownself. This is also implied in the Bible.
Lane Sattler (January 27, 2019 3:43 PM)
Dr. Li, please explain how your conclusion is implied in the bible, particularly as it would apply to creating embryos destined for destruction.
Fadi Ladaa (January 24, 2019 11:08 AM)
This type of experiment is important for healthy future generations but it should be regulated, I think his mistake was taking responsibility on his own.
Stanislav Jaracz (January 27, 2019 11:49 PM)
This is highly political topic. Professor He violated regulation because this was the only way to get this done. The major argument against him is along the lines of our beliefs of life origin and our reluctance of the fact that it can be created and even evolved by someone else than god. It is not important whether the babies will be resistant against HIV. What matters is that a human gene was modified.
Hare Krishnen (January 30, 2019 8:02 PM)
The ethical arguments apart, please consider this scientifically. The implications of the CRISPR technology is not understood fully. There are reports that it causes changes that are not intended. I would say that this science and technology has not matured to be used in creating human life. Consider this, even small molecule drug pass through a rigorous process to be approved for human use. Even with a carefully designed protocol, following all the ethics the use of CRISPR at this stage on human embryos to created life is not scientifically sound.

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