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01/10/2019 / By Isabelle Z.
A Chinese biophysics researcher who gene-edited babies is under armed guard and is now facing the death penalty, according to reports.
In November, Dr. Jiankui He announced that he had used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique to alter embryonic genes in twin girls to protect them from being infected by HIV, a virus their father was carrying. It is believed that six additional pregnant couples served as volunteers for his experiments.
This spurred a global outcry, with much of the scientific community in China expressing shock. Many viewed his actions as a violation of international bans on the gene editing of a live human embryo. The Chinese Vice Minister of Science and Technology, Xu Nanping, stated that the work was illegal, while the organizers of the Hong Kong biomedical conference at which he made the announcement called his work “deeply disturbing” and “irresponsible.”
The scientist has been living in a heavily-guarded state-owned university apartment under what many believe is a form of house arrest. According to his colleagues, he is facing charges of bribery and corruption, both of which are considered capital offenses in the communist country.
It is believed that the corruption charges may be related to the methods he used in order to enlist the help of his assistants. His claims that he obtained their informed consent have been challenged, and the current status of the babies who were gene edited is a mystery.
In China, the media has been ordered not to cover the professor’s work and current situation, and staff at the university where he is currently being housed have been banned from talking about him and his work.
He is believed to have funded his experiments via his personal wealth. This fall, he released a series of YouTube videos in which he said he wanted to help families to protect their kids from diseases.
Chinese authorities have launched an investigation. They discovered that he had seriously contravened ethical codes, and experts believe Dr. He put these children’s lives at risk through his actions.
Although the two children reportedly gained HIV resistance, experts say the procedure was pointless given the existing means of preventing infected men from passing the disease to their children. Chinese authorities say they have stopped all research along the lines of Dr. He’s and ordered universities to start reviewing gene editing research work.
One British researcher, Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, denounced Dr. He’s inexperience and ego, likening the scientific hub in Shenzhen were the work was carried out to the “wild west” for this type of research. He believes Dr. He’s actions could inspire other scientists to act similarly irresponsibly, adding that given the backlash, we may never find out about such operations.
He thinks Dr. He did it for the glory, stating: “Here you have a physicist who knows little biology, is very rich, has a huge ego, wants to be the first at doing something that will change the world.”
Liu Chaoyu, who co-founded the Vienomics gene testing firm alongside Dr. He, concurs, describing him as motivated by “fame and fortune.”
China is a hotbed of questionable genetic engineering experiments, and skeptics believe the Chinese government isn’t opposed to his work but may have felt compelled to take action in response to the international backlash after he went public with it. A paper that he allegedly submitted about the experiment has since disappeared.
We may never know the full truth about this situation, but its ramifications could be felt for a very long time. We now have two babies out there with engineered DNA, and no one really knows exactly what can happen to them as a result of these mutations – not to mention their offspring, should they one day be able to start a family.
Sources for this article include: