China suspends all projects of gene-edited baby scientist He Jiankui, and says those involved will be punished
- International experts call claims genetically modified children were born ‘unexpected and deeply disturbing’
- Organising committee of Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing wants independent verification
China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has ordered research institutes to suspend all the scientific projects of Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who claims to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies.
He’s announcement earlier this week shocked the world, and on Thursday prompted a group of international experts to call for an independent assessment to verify his claim that twin sisters were born this month from embryos modified to disable a gene related to HIV infection.
The group of experts, who make up the organising committee of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, described the claim as “unexpected and deeply disturbing”.
The scientist from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen faced his peers and the public when speaking at a session of the summit, which was held in Hong Kong, on Wednesday.
Xu Nanping, the vice-minister of science and technology, said his ministry had asked research institutes where He works to stop all of his scientific projects.
“China has banned reproductive use of gene editing in human embryos,” Xu said. “The experiment has violated laws and regulations in China.”
The top official said the ministry was firmly against the experiment of genetically edited babies, and will punish researchers involved in the project once the investigation is completed.
He has risked his career with the project, and has been suspended from running for China’s 15th Science and Technology Award for Young Scientists, according to Huai Jinpeng, party head of the China Association for Science and Technology, an organiser of the event.
“The project is despicable, and has damaged the image of China’s science and technology community,” Huai said.
In Hong Kong, the organising committee said an investigation to verify He’s claims was needed.
“We recommend an independent assessment to verify this claim and to ascertain whether the claimed DNA modifications have occurred,” committee chairman Professor David Baltimore said, reading the statement on behalf of the group of 14 scholars.
Baltimore, however, said the committee has not laid out ways in carrying out the investigation, as it would depend on some other factors.
“It’s going to depend very much on what kind of cooperation we get from him, who he trusts enough to allow for investigation of the claims,” said Baltimore, who won the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The committee said if the claims were verified, the procedure was “irresponsible and failed to conform with international norms”.
It added that those flaws included an inadequate medical indication, poorly designed study protocol, a failure to meet ethical standards for protecting the welfare of research subjects, and a lack of transparency in the development, review and conduct of the clinical procedures.
He was originally expected to speak at another session of the summit on Thursday afternoon, but did not attend.
Since the news of his work, there has been a wide range of criticism. The medical necessity of the experiment has been questioned, along with the scientist’s responsibility for the lives of the gene-edited children, and the ethics and transparency of the work.
On Wednesday, He said the seven couples who took park in the research had given their informed consent, but the consent forms posted on his website described the experiment as “Aids vaccine development project”.
The male participants are said to be all HIV carriers, and one of the couples is claimed to have given birth to the twins.
The website of He’s lab, which contained details of his research, could not be accessed on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Karen Zhang