A scientist who claims to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies has had his work suspended by Chinese authorities. The scientist, He Jiankui, reportedly used the gene-editing technique Crispr to alter embryos that were born as twin girls this month. The twins, born to an unknown couple, are supposedly immune to HIV. He is now being accused of experimenting on humans with an unproven, and potentially unsafe, technology.
Chinese authorities now say that the work has been shut down until further notice as it appeared to be in violation of Chinese law. In an interview, China’s vice minister of science and technology, Xu Nanping, said that the experiment “crossed the line of morality and ethics adhered to by the academic community and was shocking and unacceptable.” Xu also said the doctor’s work is still being investigated. No further details about the shutdown were given.
China has been at the forefront of gene-editing research. Chinese regulations approved in 2003 permits gene-editing experiments on embryos for research purposes, however they could only remain viable for up to 14 days. Scientists in China created the world’s first cloned monkeys and the first gene-edited human embryo. But there are still serious unanswered questions about the safety of editing embryos genetically.
Dr. He admitted that he had not made his university in China aware of the research he was conducting and that he had initially paid for the research himself. However, he had presented preliminary aspects of his research at conferences and submitted his research to a scientific journal for review. He also said that he had consulted with scientists around the world, including in the United States.
The admissions sparked international condemnation from scientists. A group of 122 Chinese scientists issued a statement criticizing Dr. He’s actions. The Genetics Society of China and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research wrote in their statement that they “strongly condemn” the project for its “extreme irresponsibility, both scientifically and ethically.” Ethicists complained that the work was a violation of established scientific and ethics standards.