Chinese authorities appear to have confirmed a scientist’s unpublished claim that he helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies and that a second pregnancy is underway, and say he could face consequences for his work.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Monday that investigators in Guangdong province determined that the scientist, He Jiankui (HUH JEEN-qway), evaded supervision of his work and violated research norms because he wanted to be famous.
The report said He acted alone and will be punished for any violations of the law, although it didn’t say which regulations he may have broken.
The scientist stunned the world in November by claiming that he had altered the DNA of twin girls at conception to try to help them resist infection with the AIDS virus.
He’s work has been widely criticized as unethical because of questions about whether the participants truly understood the risks.
It is also considered medically dangerous because of possible harm to other genes and the DNA changes can be passed to future generations.
There has been no independent verification of his claim, first reported by The Associated Press, and it has not yet been published, although He gave details at an international gene editing conference in Hong Kong.
Some have even speculated that it could be a hoax.
But the Chinese investigation appears to confirm it.
The Xinhua report says the twins and those involved in the second pregnancy will remain under medical observation with regular visits supervised by government health departments.
“It does sound like they have confirmed the existence of the babies,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a genetics journal editor from the University of Pennsylvania who reviewed materials He provided at the AP’s request.
Given that the Chinese investigation alleged ethical lapses, He’s work might not be published by a scientific journal, but “the information needs to be made available so we know exactly what was done,” Musunuru said. “It could be as simple as putting it on the web.”
The scientist, He, could not be reached for comment.
It’s unclear how many edited embryos remain from He’s experiment and what will become of them.
He’s school, Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, and the Chinese ministries of health and science also have said they are investigating and have put a halt to his work.
Gene editing for reproductive purposes is effectively banned in the U.S. and most of Europe.
In China, ministerial guidelines prohibit embryo research that “violates ethical or moral principles.”