China science

Chinese scientist He Jiankui at centre of gene-editing controversy ran second experiment on human embryos, new document reveals

  • Academic started clinical study on abandoned human embryos just one month after beginning controversial project with gene-edited babies
  • Expert questions why experiment with babies, which was more advanced, was concluded before results of basic research study on embryos were available
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 10:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 9:40pm

The Chinese scientist who claimed he created the world’s first gene-edited babies had conducted a similar experiment on abandoned human embryos, it has been revealed.

The revelation raised more ethical concerns over the project by Dr He Jiankui, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, with an expert questioning why the two experiments, which represented the basic and advanced stages of gene-editing research, had been conducted at the same time.

He announced on Monday that healthy twin sisters, named Lulu and Nana, had been born this month from embryos modified by his team to switch off an HIV-related gene, sparking a chorus of condemnation from around the world.

The parties mentioned in the research have denied having any knowledge of He’s project, while on Tuesday, China’s science ministry said it would investigate whether the associate professor had broken the law.

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On Tuesday, Xu Nanping, vice-minister of science and technology, said he was shocked by the claims and said his ministry would launch an investigation, adding that such experiments had been banned since 2003.

He used CRISPR-Cas9 – a genome editing system – to edit human embryos, which were then transferred to seven women for pregnancy, starting in March 2017. One of them was said to have given birth to the twins.

However, just one month after this two-year project was launched, He initiated a three-year basic science clinical study related to gene editing on abandoned human embryos in partnership with researchers from Luohu People's Hospital in Shenzhen, according to the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry, a database affiliated with the World Health Organisation.

The research members of the project were mostly from the reproductive medical section of the hospital.

The registry’s documents showed the study was called Evaluating the Safety of Genome Editing in Human, Monkey and Mouse Embryos, and was approved by the Medical Ethics Committee of Luohu People's Hospital, a top public hospital in Shenzhen.

The document, which was signed by committee members in June in 2017, said the research aimed to assess the safety of gene therapy in major genetic-related diseases and infertility.

“In this study, we will use the most popular CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology and its derivative single base mutation technology to carry out exploratory experiments on the abandoned human embryo samples from the assisted reproduction process,” the document read.

It added the donors of the human embryos had given informed consent.

Chinese scientists condemn ‘crazy’ and ‘unethical’ gene-editing experiment

The study claimed to use samples from 400 embryos in total for interventions. The samples would be destroyed after use. Apart from He’s university and the hospital, sponsors of the project included two hospitals in Hunan and Henan, and a university in Kunming.

Dr Derrick Au Kit-sing, director of Chinese University’s Centre for Bioethics, questioned why the results from the basic study on abandoned human embryos had not yet been released, but the more complex experiment on human beings was said to have succeeded.

Au noted that there were many steps missing between the two studies.

Using the analogy of cloning technology, he said: “After Dolly the Sheep, there have been many animals tested for cloning.

“You cannot say that you succeeded in cloning the sheep, then jump to clone human beings directly. There is a huge gap,” he added.

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Au said going from abandoned human embryos to humans involved other steps in between, like live animal models of gene editing. Regarding the gene-edited babies, Au stressed that there was uncertainty about this experiment as there were no verified facts except He’s claim.

“So I think the biggest question mark is there,” he said.

The hospital has not responded to repeated inquiries from the Post.

On Wednesday, He introduced his clinical study of gene editing during a presentation at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, sharing data on his experiments on live mice and monkeys. But it was unclear when these experiments were done.

Au said that, while He’s presentation offered the public more information about his gene editing research, he did not disclose how many such studies he had done in total.

Au also said he was expecting to learn the actual behavioural outcomes of the animals from the studies other than the data and technology involved.

“The design of scientific research is about more than just if the gene has been technically targeted, ” Au said.