The Southern University of Science and Technology in China has launched an investigation following reports that one of its researchers carried out unauthorized gene editing in the cells of twin girls born earlier this month. News of the procedure, which lead scientist on the project, He Jiankui, announced in several videos posted yesterday (November 25) on YouTube, has led to outrage among researchers who see this use of CRISPR as a violation of worldwide ethical standards, but also doubt the claim’s veracity.
“If this is a false report, it is scientific misconduct and deeply irresponsible,” Robert Winston, emeritus professor of fertility studies and professor of science and society at Imperial College London, tells BBC News. “If true, it is still scientific misconduct.”
In the videos, He claims to have used CRISPR-Cas9 not to prevent a heritable disease in the twins, but to try to give them extra protection against developing HIV in the future. In documents posted on China’s clinical trial registry, Nature reports, He describes the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in single-cell embryos to disable CCR5—a gene that codes for a protein involved in HIV’s infection of human cells.
He’s actions have already been condemned by academics around the world. “The lifetime risk of contracting HIV is extremely low in the first place; there are other means of prevention and it is no longer an incurable, inevitably terminal disease,” Sarah Chan, a bioethicist at the University of Edinburgh, tells The Guardian. “Putting these children at such drastic risk for such a marginal gain is unjustifiable.”
He apparently anticipated such a reaction to his announcement. “I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology,” he says in one of the videos. “And I’m willing to take the criticism for them.”
Reuters reports that the Southern University of Science and Technology notes in a statement that it “strictly requires scientific research to conform to national laws and regulations and to respect and comply with international academic ethics and standards.” Although China has no laws explicitly banning gene editing in babies, using the procedure does violate guidelines published by China’s health ministry in 2003, and goes against international guidelines agreed to at a summit on the issue in 2015.
The university further notes that He has been on unpaid leave since February 2018—a situation that He tells Reuters he chose himself in order to focus on his research—and calls the work a “serious violation of academic ethics and standards,” Reuters reports.
In the wake of the news, Feng Zhang, a researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and one of the inventors of CRISPR as a moleculer biology tool, is calling for a global moratorium on the use of the technology to create gene-edited babies.
“I am . . . deeply concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding this trial,” Zhang says in a statement published by MIT Technology Review. “All medical advances, gene editing or otherwise and particularly those that impact vulnerable populations, should be cautiously and thoughtfully tested, discussed openly with patients, physicians, scientists, and other community members, and implemented in an equitable way.”