A Chinese scientist who stoked criticism over his claim that he had created the world's first genetically-edited babies faced mounting pressure Thursday as China ordered a halt to his scientific activities and warned he may have broken the law.
A screen shows information of genomic data while He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, speaking during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.
"For this specific case, I feel proud".
That moral claim may prove more hard to resolve than the safety questions, because altering the genomes of future persons - especially in ways that can be passed on generation after generation - goes against worldwide declarations and conventions, national laws, and the ethics codes of many scientific organizations.
"At this summit we heard an unexpected and deeply disturbing claim that human embryos had been edited and implanted, resulting in a pregnancy and the birth of twins", the committee wrote about He's work. According to Jiankui, the goal of his work was to bestow babies with a trait to resist any possible future infection with HIV.
Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology, where He works, has reportedly begun an investigation into the experiment, as has a local medical ethics board. Chinese scientists have expressed disapproval of Jiankui's research, stating that the use of the CRISPR-Cas9 tool is a "huge blow" to the reputation of Chinese biomedical research. Even worldwide researchers who knew him were surprised by the announcement.
Gene editing could potentially help avoid heritable diseases by deleting or changing troublesome coding in embryos.
Meanwhile, more American scientists said they had contact with He and were aware of or suspected what he was doing.
He's employer, Southern University of Science and Technology, said in a statement that it was not informed about He's human gene-editing work and has opened an investigation.
All couples he recruited for this study had an HIV-positive father, and a non-infected mother.
The experiment has prompted heated debate among scientists over the risks involved.
The consent form mentions multiple risks, but there is little detail on potential complications of the gene-editing process itself, including for the child. Other prominent researchers, such as Harvard's George Chruch, said that he thinks attempting gene editing to prevent HIV is "justifiable". He said he would monitor the two newborns for the next 18 years and hoped they would support continued monitoring thereafter.
China isn't going to let research into gene-edited babies go any further. The U.S. Academies released a statement on Tuesday affirming the recommendations made in their 2017 report.