The Chinese scientist who sparked near-universal criticism for his claim of creating the world’s first gene-edited babies has reportedly been suspended without pay and placed under investigation.
Southern University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC) associate professor He Jiankui revealed via a YouTube video on Monday that he and his research team used modified embryos to produce a pair of healthy twin sisters this month.
He reportedly worked with a volunteer couple in which the male partner was HIV positive. Using gene-editing tool CRISPR, the team was able to switch off the HIV-related gene on embryos during IVF treatment.
He claimed that with the CRISPR-edited DNA, the newborn twin girls are reportedly immune to HIV.
He, who reportedly heads six companies primarily in the genetics sector, said he aims to alter the babies’ genes in a way that would protect them from future HIV infection, according to the South China Morning Post.
In a statement released on Monday, SUSTC distanced itself from He, saying that the researcher had been on unpaid leave since February 1 and was not expected to return until January 2021.
The Shenzhen school’s academic board noted that the scientist had “seriously violated academic ethics and norms.”
“Our school will immediately hire authoritative experts to set up an independent committee to conduct in-depth investigations and publish relevant information after investigation,” the statement noted.
Health officials from China’s National Health Commission also stated that they were not made aware of He’s experiment, which has not been verified nor published in any academic journal.
“We just saw it on the internet. We are equally shocked as everybody else,” an official in charge of medical ethics evaluation was quoted as saying. “We are completely in the dark.”
In a statement released Tuesday, the commission said that it had “immediately requested the Guangdong Provincial Health Commission to seriously investigate and verify” He’s research.
According to CNN, the Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission confirmed that an investigation has been launched on Monday to “verify the authenticity of the ethical review of the research reported by media.”
While there are no laws or regulations in China forbidding the creation of genome-edited children, such practice is widely condemned by the international scientific community.
Over 120 Chinese scientists from leading research universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University in China, Stanford in the United States, and Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology, and Research signed a joint statement condemning He’s research.
“The project completely ignored the principles of biomedical ethics, conducting experiments on humans without proving it’s safe,” said Qiu Zilong, a neuroscience researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (中国科学) who penned the statement posted on social media platform, Weibo.
“We can only describe such behavior as crazy.”
In 2015, a group of Chinese scientists ran CRISPR experiments on human embryos, resulting in genetic mutations to at least two-thirds of the embryos. A year later, a team of scientists from Sichuan University in Chengdu successfully injected genetically-edited cells into a person, becoming the first scientists to alter human genes in a bid to fight cancer.
Featured image via YouTube / The He Lab