South China Morning Post: Gene-Edited Babies

Much of the world expressed concern after reports of the birth of gene-edited infants in November. An investigation in China confirmed that the infants are real and the scientist acted on his own. A preliminary investigation, as reported by Xinhua News Agency, explains that the researcher avoided surveillance, forged ethical papers, and worked with foreign staff and eight couples, reports Phoebe Zhang for the South China Morning Post. The report also notes he “used technology of uncertain safety and effectiveness to perform human embryo gene-editing activity with the purpose of reproduction, which is officially banned in the country.” Twins were born and another woman is pregnant. The new technology poses many unknowns, yet ambition drives some scientists to be the first with new discoveries. Other researchers worry about the health of the individual infants and even the entire human race. The punishment is unknown, and Authorities have announced plans to draft new guidelines for reviews of biomedical research involving humans. – YaleGlobal

South China Morning Post: Gene-Edited Babies

China’s Xinhua news agency says preliminary investigations reveal that the scientist who developed gene-edited babies acted on his own and forged review papers
Phoebe Zhang
Tuesday, January 22, 2019

South China Morning Post: The Chinese authorities are holding scientist He Jiankui wholly responsible for creating the world’s first gene-edited babies.

He had announced their birth in November, after which the authorities announced an investigation into the matter.

A team of investigators told the official Xinhua news agency on Monday that a preliminary investigation had concluded that He had “organised a project team that included foreign staff, which intentionally avoided surveillance and used technology of uncertain safety and effectiveness to perform human embryo gene-editing activity with the purpose of reproduction, which is officially banned in the country”.

Between March 2017 and November 2018, He forged ethical review papers and recruited eight couples to participate in his experiment, resulting in two pregnancies. One of the mothers gave birth to twins nicknamed “Lulu” and “Nana”, the investigators said. Another woman is still carrying a gene-edited fetus.

They also said that He, his staff and organisations related to his project would be punished according to laws and regulations.

The Guangdong government will keep the twins under medical observation. The government decision was welcomed by the scientific community. A biologist, who asked not to be identified, said: “This is a result I’m happy to see,” he said. ”This should be the way. There needs to be protection of the babies too.” He said he had also researched gene-editing but all experiments were done on lab rats only.

In an interview with Beijing Youth Daily on Sunday, Shao Feng, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and deputy director of the National Institute of Biological Sciences, said the whole incident would need to be investigated thoroughly. “If I were to handle the matter, I would never tell [the twins] they’ve been gene-edited and allow them to live their lives like normal people,” he said. “I think that’s for the best.”

An expert in the field, Shao is worried about potential health risks the children will face as well as the incident’s effect on the human race. “Once the gate of gene-editing is wide open, the human race will be finished,” he said. “The technology is strong but the terrifying fact is that anyone slightly trained in a lab can perform it.”

He has not been seen in public since he announced the births at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in November. Some media reports have claimed he is being kept under house arrest or even detained by police.

A spokeswoman at the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology, He’s employer, has previously dismissed talk of detention as rumours. He has faced a wave of condemnation from China’s scientific community and health officials have insisted they knew nothing of his experiments.  

China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has ordered research institutes to suspend all of He’s scientific projects.

An investigation into He’s work found that the ethics review committee at the Harmonicare Women and Children’s Hospital, which the scientist said had approved his research, was not registered with the city’s health authorities. The hospital had earlier denied any involvement with the project.

Last month the Shenzhen authorities announced they would issue draft guidelines for the ethical review of biomedical research involving humans.

Internet users flooded social media with comments on the news of investigations into He’s work. “This professor is not worthy of being in education, he has the evil ambitions of a terrorist in disaster movies,” one wrote on Weib. “I knew he’d end up in ruins, and this will affect the Chinese scientific community,” another wrote.

It is unclear what punishments He faces or what the consequences would be for the babies and the pregnant volunteers, if any.

Phoebe Zhang is a society reporter with the South China Morning Post. She likes to write human-interest stories and has written many about people living on the fringes of society. She believes there’s no story or person that’s too small.        

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