The Chinese doctor who claimed he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies has been fired from his job.
But authorities appear to have confirmed his unpublished claims, which sparked international outrage late last year.
Chinese investigators determined Dr He Jiankui acted on his own and will be punished for any violations of the law, according to state media.
“This behaviour seriously violates ethics and the integrity of scientific research, is in serious violation of relevant national regulations and creates a pernicious influence at home and abroad,” a Xinhua News Agency report said.
His employer, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said it will “rescind the work contract with Dr Jiankui He and terminate any of his teaching and research activities.”
The controversial doctor made headlines last November after claiming he altered human embryos with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life – resulting in the birth of genetically edited twin girls.
Dr He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.
But investigators in the southern province of Guangdong determined Dr He organised and handled funding for the experiment without outside assistance in violation of national guidelines, the Xinhua News Agency said on Monday.
There has been no independent verification of his claim, and it has not yet been published, although Dr 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 Dr He provided at the AP’s request.
Given that the Chinese investigation alleged ethical lapses, Dr He’s work might not be published by a scientific journal, but “the information needs to be made available so we know exactly what was done,” Musunuru said.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.”
Along with the birth of the twins, another embryo yet to be born reportedly resulted from his experiment.
In 2017, Dr He, then little-known, attended a meeting in Berkeley, California, where scientists and ethicists were discussing a technology that had shaken the field to its core — an emerging tool for “editing” genes, the strings of DNA that form the blueprint of life.
He embraced the tool, called CRISPR, and last year rocked an international conference with the claim that he had helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies, despite a clear scientific consensus that making genetic changes that could be passed to future generations should not be attempted at this point.
China called an immediate halt to Dr He’s experiments following his announcement.
Gene editing for reproductive purposes is effectively banned in the US and most of Europe.
In China, ministerial guidelines prohibit embryo research that “violates ethical or moral principles.”
The chief of the World Health Organisation said last year his agency is assembling experts to consider the health impact of gene editing.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said gene editing “cannot be just done without clear guidelines” and experts should “start from a clean sheet and check everything.”
“We have a big part of our population who say, ‘Don’t touch,’” Tedros told reporters. “We have to be very, very careful, and the working group will do that.”