Before news broke of a trial to genetically alter human embryos using CRISPR, the leader of the project, He Jiankui, claimed in various documents that the experiment was backed by government funding, STAT reports today (February 25). The papers contradict both the assertion of an investigation by the government of Guangdong Province that He raised funds on his own and He’s own statement in a late-November talk that he had bankrolled the trial from his own savings and startup funds from his university.
On November 25, MIT Technology Review and the Associated Press broke different aspects of the story the He headed a team that used CRISPR editing to modify a gene called CCR5 in embryos that were then implanted, resulting in the birth of twin girls who He believes will be immune to infection by HIV. (It was later revealed that the trial also resulted in a second pregnancy.) The news brought widespread condemnation from researchers and bioethicists who said the risks of editing human babies, particularly to head off a disease that can be prevented in other ways, are too great.
He’s institution, Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, said it had had no knowledge of the trial, which He headed while on leave, and a provincial government investigation later found that “He had avoided supervision, raised funds and organized researchers on his own to carry out the human embryo gene-editing research intended for reproduction,” according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Yet STAT found official funding sources listed on documents related to the trial that claim otherwise. A slide presentation He’s team compiled credits China’s Ministry of Science and Technology for funding the project. The Chinese Clinical Trial Registry, by contrast, names the Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Free Exploration Project as the sponsor. And the trial’s informed-consent forms list He’s university as the funder. The ministry tells STAT it did not fund the trial, although the outlet notes it’s possible grants for previous research in He’s lab were used for the trial.
“It’s unlikely that He acted alone,” Lei Ruipeng of the Centre for Bioethics at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan tells STAT. “I hope the ongoing investigation addresses the institutional issues that culminated in the affair. Otherwise, it would leave open the possibility of similar scandals.”
Other Chinese researchers suggested that He might have inaccurately listed official funding sources in a bid to gain credibility. “I would be very surprised if government agencies officially funded the CRISPR babies project,” Mu-ming Poo, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, tells STAT.
The effects of the trial’s genetic change may extend beyond immunity in the twins, news reports suggested last week after the publication of a paper in Cell linking naturally occurring mutations in CCR5 to improved recovery from stroke and better cognition. “The answer is likely yes, it did affect [the CRISPR babies’] brains,” Alcino Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and one of the study’s authors, tells MIT Technology Review.
Geneticist Gaetan Burgio of the Australian National University took to Twitter to dispute that interpretation, calling it “totally absurd.” CCR5 has not cropped up in genome-wide association studies as being linked to cognition in humans, he noted, and furthermore, it’s not known whether the mutations that were induced in the twins will in fact knock down the gene’s function.