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China stops research into gene-editing after 'CRISPR baby'

November 29, 2018

Claims by Chinese scientist He Jiankui have prompted Beijing to order a halt to all activities related to gene-editing. A government spokesperson called He's supposedly genetically edited babies "unacceptable."

An embryo receives a small amount of Cas9 protein and sgRNA under a microscope
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schiefelbein

The Chinese government on Thursday ordered a temporary stop to all scientific research related to the editing of human genes — the latest condemnation following claims by Chinese scientist He Jiankui that he had genetically altered twin babies.

Beijing also warned that He's gene-editing activities may have broken the law and ordered an investigation. 

Government condemnation

  • China's science and technology vice minister, Xu Nanping, described He's behavior as "shocking and unacceptable" in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.
  • The ministry "firmly opposes" the experiment and has "already demanded that the relevant organization suspend the scientific activities of relevant personnel," Xu said.
  • The National Health Commission has ordered an investigation into He's claims, as has the Southern University of Science and Technology, where the scientist worked.
  • The organizers of a Hong Kong biomedical conference, where He announced his gene-editing claims, described his work on Thursday as "deeply disturbing" and "irresponsible."

Read more:  Opinion: Why we should stop human gene editing

He Jianku speaks at a gene-editing conference
He spoke about his claims at a gene-editing conference in Hon Kong on WednesdayImage: picture-alliance/Maxppp/VCG

How we got here

  • He claimed on Monday that he had changed the genetic material of two twin embryos to make them resistant to HIV.
  • Scientists from around the world immediately condemned He for his alleged activities and called for standards to be put in place regarding genetic modification.
  • On Wednesday at the biomedical conference He said he was "proud" of his work, even as criticism continued to pour in.
  • He was expected to speak Thursday at the conference but did not attend.

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Constroverisal application and procedure

  • He's claim of producing the world's first genetically modified babies has not been independently verified.
  • His supposed application of the gene-editing technology, called CRISPR, is ethically controversial and its potential related effects remain unclear.
  • He's filing to a clinical trials database shows that a hospital did an ethical review of the project, but the hospital in question denied ever discussing the work.
  • He released his work via YouTube, bypassing the usual channels of review for scientific work 
  • Scientistics condemned He for his failure to adhere to research standards, with the conference organizers citing "inadequate medical indication, a poorly designed study protocol, a failure to meet ethical standards for protecting the welfare of research subjects, and a lack of transparency in the development, review and conduct of clinical procedures." 

cmb/msh (AFP, Reuters)

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