Authorities in China have officially declared that the experiments which led to the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies were illegal under the country’s laws. China’s National Health Commission said in a statement that Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s experiments to alter the genes of human embryos to make them more resistant to HIV broke numerous regulations and that he, along with any other researchers involved, would be punished in accordance with the law. The case has now been handed over to the Ministry of Public Security.
He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in the Guangdong province, sparked international outrage last November as he discussed the results of his experiments at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. He admitted to altering the DNA of seven human embryos to make them more HIV-resistant. The experiments resulted in the birth of twin girls, named Lulu and Nana, and the pregnancy of a second woman.
According to authorities, China’s National Health Commission “immediately requested the Guangdong Provincial Health Commission to seriously investigate and verify” the claims made by the scientist. The investigation found that He had engaged in “explicitly state-banned human embryo-editing activity for reproductive purposes” and that the work was conducted “in pursuit of personal fame and fortune”. The authorities also believe He forged both ethical review documents and blood tests to hide his illegal activities.
One of the hospitals that was named in He’s ethical approval paperwork denied any involvement in the procedures. A representative from Shenzhen Harmonicare Women’s and Children’s Hospital said in an interview, “We can ensure that the research wasn’t conducted in our hospital nor were the babies born here.” Two doctors named in He’s documents that work at the hospital are now believed to be the subjects of an internal investigation.
Many countries, including the United States, ban editing the genes of embryos intended for pregnancy. It is not known whether the procedure is safe or will result in inadvertent complications for the babies later in life. There is also the risk that the gene-editing would affect future generations of the initial subject in unintended ways. The babies and subjects of He’s experiments will now be monitored by relevant departments of the Guangdong Province government.