China Confirms That He Jiankui Created Gene Edited Babies

He Jiankui, the scientist who created the gene edited twins. (Image:  wikimedia /  CC0 1.0)
He Jiankui, the scientist who created the gene edited twins. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

An official investigation set up by the Chinese government to study the truth behind scientist He Jiankui’s claim of creating two gene edited babies has confirmed it to be true. Since he flouted several laws to carry his experiments, Jiankui will be punished according to the relevant laws surrounding gene editing.

Gene edited babies

In November last year, He Jiankui declared that he had used CRISPR to edit the genes of two female babies to prevent them from inhering the HIV genes from their parents. The announcement was followed by widespread condemnation from the scientific community, which argued that Jiankui might have done irreparable genetic damage to the children. He was later put under house arrest by the Chinese government and an investigation was launched by the authorities from the Guangdong Province. 

The team discovered that Jiankui had avoided supervision, raised funds, and had brought together a group of researchers all on his own to conduct human embryo gene editing for reproduction, an activity that is banned under the country’s regulations surrounding gene manipulation. The experiments were conducted without following adequate safety protocols.

Jiankui also created fake ethical review certificates to convince eight couples to volunteer for his experiments. All males had tested positive for the HIV antibody. After they signed up for his project, Jiankui started his experiments between March 2017 and November 2018. During this period, his team edited the genes of the human embryos and implanted them into the women’s bodies.

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who shocked the world in November last year by revealing that he had gene edited two babies, is currently under house arrest. (Image: The He Lab via wikimedia CC BY 3.0)

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who shocked the world in November last year by revealing that he had gene edited two babies, is currently under house arrest. (Image: The He Lab via wikimedia CC BY 3.0)

Eventually, two women became pregnant, out of which one gave birth to the female twins Lulu and Nana. The second woman is still pregnant and will be delivering soon. Jiankui and his associates are expected to receive harsh punishments. Some speculate that Jiankui might be given the death sentence to set an “example” for other researchers, while others believe that the scientist may get away with minimal punishment as the government might consider using his “talents.”

“Even though the Ministry of Health has issued ethical rules, the legal responsibility is unclear and the penalties are very light,” Wang Yue, a professor at Peking University who researches health law in China, said to The New York Times.

Another important debate surrounding the issue is the matter of informed consent. When recruiting people into any medical experiment, researchers have to obtain verbal consent from the volunteers after explaining all the downsides of the program.

However, since Jiankui misrepresented the negatives of the gene editing experiment, the volunteers were essentially duped into giving their consent. Many believe that this is a clarion call for the Chinese government to implement stricter laws and regulations regarding human experiments.

Nobel laureate involvement

Latest reports suggest that Nobel laureate Craig Mello, who is a professor of molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, knew about Jiankui’s experiments. This was revealed by a media investigation that uncovered Mello’s emails.  

Nobel Prize Winner Craig Mello apparently knew about Jiankui’s experiments. (Image: Bengt Oberger via flickr CC BY-SA 4.0)

“I’m glad for you, but I’d rather not be kept in the loop on this… You are risking the health of the child you are editing… I just don’t see why you are doing this. I wish your patient the best of luck for a healthy pregnancy,” he said in an email (NBC News).

Mello has declined any involvement in the experiments and tried to distance himself from the scandal by saying that all discussions between him and Jiankui were just “hypothetical.”

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our weekly email

The Coolest Experiment in the Universe
The Unholy Alliance Between Huawei and the Chinese Communist Party