He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who last November announced that he had achieved the birth of two genetically edited twins, he thought he was destined for glory. But this Monday has definitely confirmed his fall. An official investigation has described his experiments as a serious ethical violation, according to official Chinese media reports. The case will now go to the Ministry of Public Security, the police, which points to criminal charges being filed against the geneticist.
I amazed (and shocked) the world when in November, during a scientific congress in Hong Kong, announced the birth of Nana and Lulu, two babies whose DNA altered using CRISPR gene editing technology to try to make them resistant to the human immunodeficiency virus ( HIV), which causes AIDS. The geneticist's experiment, which did not provide details or published his research in any specialized journal, received a blunt condemnation of the world scientific community.
The investigation opened by order of the Chinese Government immediately after the announcement of He has confirmed that the scientist manipulated the genetic code of several embryos implanted in the womb of female volunteers. In addition to the pregnancy from which the two twins were born, there is a second in progress, as indicated by the Chinese news agency Xinhua, which quotes the researchers.
Between March 2017 and November 2018 He, trained in American universities, organized a team that "intentionally avoided controls and used technology of uncertain effectiveness and safety to develop activities for the editing of human embryos for reproductive purposes, something that is officially prohibited" , the researchers told Xinhua.
During that time he was on leave from the South University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, where he had joined on his return from the United States.
As part of these activities, the scientist falsified documentation to make it appear that an ethical committee had approved the experiment and convinced eight heterosexual couples to submit to the test.
I found these pairs of volunteers, in which the man was infected with the AIDS virus and the woman was not, through a Beijing NGO specializing in the fight against this disease. In his speech at the Hong Kong congress, he insisted that he had provided all the information necessary for them to give informed consent to their participation in the trial.
But that is in question. And there are more irregularities, according to the researchers. Since couples in which at least one of their members is infected with HIV can not benefit from in vitro fertilization treatments in China, I have instructed others to supplant the volunteers in the necessary blood tests. He also invested his own money (he has founded several biomedical companies) in the experiment, which allowed him to bypass official controls.
"The activities seriously violated ethical principles and scientific integrity," as well as Chinese legislation, according to those responsible for the investigation. He and others involved "will receive punishment according to Chinese laws and regulations. Suspects of having perpetrated crimes will be transferred to (the responsibility of) the Ministry of Public Security, "Xinhua said. The two genetically modified babies and the pregnant woman will be kept under medical observation.
After the statements of the researchers, the University of the South of Science and Technology has announced the formal dismissal of He, who has not been seen again in public since his presentation in Hong Kong and who apparently is under house arrest in a Shenzhen apartment.
When announcing his experiment, He had defended himself by declaring himself "proud" of what he had done and by ensuring that with the genetic edition he would prevent babies from becoming infected with the AIDS virus.
But his statements generated a storm of condemnation, both in China and abroad. As many scientists recalled, there are much simpler and highly effective ways to prevent the spread of HIV. In contrast, genetic editing in viable embryos can have unknown and harmful effects for the resulting humans.
A undeclared moratorium among scientists around the world prevents the genetic modification of viable human embryos. Legislation in the United States and in Europe considers He's illegal experiment. But in China the supervision of these tests may be less strict.
The case of He has opened an important debate within this country about the need to toughen legislation and improve controls to avoid experiments that, as defined by more than a hundred Chinese scientists in an open letter in November, are "crazy" . That same month, the ex- viceminister of Health Huang Jiefu asked the establishment of a national mechanism to supervise experiments on living beings.
"There is an urgent need for a national ethics review committee and the legal system to regulate bioscience," Huang, current head of the national transplant system, said in an interview with the newspaper. Global Times.