The Chinese scientist who produced the first genetically altered babies sidestepped regulations, dodged supervision, and forged fake ethical review documents, investigators said this week. The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen fired physicist He Jiankui after Chinese government officials disclosed on Monday the preliminary findings of their investigation into his controversial experiment, state news agency Xinhua reported.
Investigators said He raised funds and organized a research team outside of his university lab to edit the genes of human embryos for the purpose of reproduction, a scientific act explicitly banned in China. He is accused of recruiting eight couples in which the men tested positive for HIV. Carriers of HIV are ineligible for in vitro fertilization in China, but He used healthy substitutes to submit required blood testing. Then, the report said, He asked researchers to edit genes on the embryos and implant them into the female volunteers. Two of the women became pregnant: One gave birth to twin girls, and the other remains pregnant. One couple quit in the middle of the experiment, and the other five did not conceive.
“This behavior seriously violates ethics and the integrity of scientific research, is in serious violation of relevant national regulations and creates a pernicious influence at home and abroad,” the report from the Guangdong province investigators said.
He said he edited the genes of the babies to make them resistant to HIV, but the investigators concluded that he acted in pursuit of personal fame and gain. Both Christian and secular scientists and ethicists around the globe condemned the experiment. Experts said much safer ways exist to protect babies from contracting HIV. They further noted that gene editing, which produces genetic mutations that all future generations can inherit, can have unintended, serious, and irreversible consequences.
The investigators said He, and other relevant personnel and organizations, will receive punishment, the exact nature of which remains unclear. Officials will transport those suspected of committing crimes to the public security department, according to the report, which also assured that the genetically altered twin girls, named Lulu and Nana, and the pregnant volunteer will receive medical observation and follow-up visits.
Whatever the outcome of the continuing investigation, this ordeal serves as a long-overdue wake-up call to the scientific community about the need to rein in our burgeoning ability to permanently change the human race. William Hurlbut, a Stanford University bioethicist who has discussed He’s work with him, said scientists are under pressure from international competition and the push for technological advances.
“We are entering an era of promise and peril with our rapid advances in biomedicine,” Hurlbut told me. “We need to slow down and, as a global civilization, think together more carefully about where we are heading.”
China’s Ministry of Science and Technology pledged to “work with relevant departments to jointly improve relevant laws and regulations and improve the scientific research ethics review system,” Science magazine reported.