China halts work of gene-editing scientist who violated ‘the bottom line of morality’

BEIJING — China said Thursday that it had suspended the work of a scientist who claims to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies, saying his conduct appeared to be unethical and in violation of Chinese law.

The scientist, He Jiankui, announced Monday that he had used the gene-editing technique Crispr to alter embryos, which he implanted in the womb of a woman who gave birth to twin girls this month. At an international conference Wednesday, he asserted that he was proud of what he had done.

Xu Nanping, China’s vice minister of science and technology, said He’s work was still being investigated. But based on news reports, he said, He appeared to have “blatantly violated China’s relevant laws and regulations” and broken “the bottom line of morality and ethics that the academic community adheres to,” the state broadcaster China Central Television reported Thursday.

“It is shocking and unacceptable,” Xu was quoted as saying. “We are resolutely opposed to it.”

The audience reacts as He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.

The suspension follows international condemnation from scientists who maintain that He’s conduct was unethical. They say there are serious unanswered questions about the safety of embryo editing and a need to make sure that such research is conducted in a transparent, monitored way so the technology is not misused.

Xu had said earlier that Chinese regulations issued in 2003 permitted gene-editing experiments on embryos for research purposes, but only if they remained viable for no more than 14 days.

On Monday, a group of 122 Chinese scientists issued a statement calling He’s actions “crazy” and his claims “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”

At the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on Wednesday, He acknowledged he had not made his university in China aware of the research he was doing. He said he initially paid for the research himself, then later from his university funding.

A screen shows information of genomic data while He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, speaking during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.

He pushed back against suggestions that he had been secretive about his work, saying that he had presented preliminary aspects of it at conferences and consulted with scientists in the United States and elsewhere. He said he had submitted his research to a scientific journal for review and had not expected to be presenting it at the conference.

One of many areas of confusion about He’s research was the status of a possible pregnancy of a second woman he said he had implanted with an edited embryo. On Wednesday, under questioning from scientists after his talk, He said there had been a second implantation in an early stage.

When asked by Robin Lovell-Badge, a professor of genetics and embryology at the Francis Crick Institute in London, whether by early stage He meant a “chemical pregnancy” or early miscarriage, He said “yes.”

On Thursday, however, Lovell-Badge told reporters that he could not be sure that He understood that “chemical pregnancy” referred to a pregnancy that was lost.

“He doesn’t necessarily know what he’s talking about,” Lovell-Badge said. “We don’t know. He said he confirmed that essentially they’d done the hormone test for whether or not the woman was pregnant. And the answer is yes. But it’s very early, so it could turn into a chemical pregnancy meaning there was a miscarriage. Many embryos fail to survive.”

In this Oct. 10, 2018 photo, He Jiankui, left, and Zhou Xiaoqin work a computer at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong province.

He had been scheduled to speak again at the conference Thursday, but his talk was canceled.

Lovell-Badge who moderated the Wednesday session, said in an email that “it would have been difficult to have sufficient security” for a second talk. Lovell-Badge said that He had decided not to attend after he was told about the security arrangements.

Lovell-Badge said Thursday that the organizers had felt it was “important to give He a platform to present what he had done.”

“We therefore do not regret at all allowing him to present yesterday, but giving him a second opportunity today might also have been viewed as support for him,” he said. “This is another reason the committee did not want him back today.”

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