The Chinese government has ordered an “immediate investigation” into claims that researchers have created the world’s first genetically engineered human babies.
Lead researcher He Jiankui, said that a set of twins were born a few weeks ago after undergoing CRISPR gene editing technology to make them immune to HIV, smallpox, and cholera. He added that a further six couples are participating in the gene editing program, though their babies have not yet been born.
Since the news came out yesterday, the backlash has been severe and widespread. Doctors and ethicists have long feared the day when genetic engineering would begin to be used in humans and now it’s claimed those fears have become reality. Here’s the fallout so far:
Investigations in China
China’s National Health Commission ordered an investigation into He’s work on Monday. The Health and Family Planning commission in Shenzhen also opened an investigation into the ethics and review process that allowed He to carry out his work. The investigations came quickly in a country that has tended to be more open to using gene editing in human medicine than others.
Outcry from the scientific community
Scientists sharply criticized He’s work and many institutions distanced themselves from him. Over 120 Chinese scientists also signed a letter condemning He’s work, while simultaneously calling for new Chinese laws to prevent similar work. The Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, where He is an associate professor, added that he has been on unpaid leave since February and is not expected to return for another two years. Harmonicare Women’s and Children’s Hospital, where He said he received ethical approval for his research, denied they had given him the go-ahead and filed a report with police. Both the hospital and the university denied that the gene editing procedure had been conducted in their facilities.
Hitting where it hurts
Stock prices in the Chinese companies involved in genetic testing fell after the news broke. The group that owns Harmonicare Women’s and Children’s Hospital also lost as much as 8.2% in value, though it bounced back by 0.9% at the end of Monday. A spokesperson for Harmonicare said the losses could be attributed to fears over new, stricter regulation from the Chinese government.
U.S. professor linked to research
In the U.S., Rice University launched an investigation into Dr. Michael Deem, a professor who was found to have been involved in He’s genetic editing test. The university said He’s work and Deem’s involvement “violates scientific conduct guidelines and is inconsistent with ethical norms of the scientific community and Rice University.” Deem said he was in China when the participants agreed to the trial, and that they were aware of the risks.
Amid the condemnation and investigations, perhaps the most common reaction from the scientific and medical communities is doubt that the gene editing occurred at all. He first announced the birth of the twin girls in a YouTube video and his research hasn’t been independently confirmed or published in a peer-reviewed journal.