Gene-edit scientist faces backlash
The Chinese scientist who claimed to have edited the genes of twin babies could face the death penalty.
Researcher He Jiankui announced last year that he had used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls to protect them from an HIV infection carried by their father.
Mr He is an extremely wealthy physicists with little reported biology knowledge, who has been accused of letting his ego and lust for attention drive unethical decisions.
The announcement on YouTube sparked widespread scientific and ethical concern, and Mr He has been under a form of house arrest since soon after the news broke.
Mr He presented his alleged breakthrough at a conference organised by Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, who now says the Chinese scientist could face the death penalty.
“There is an official investigation led by the ministries of science and health,” Professor Lovell-Badge told reporters.
“He could be had up on all sorts of charges of corruption, and being guilty of corruption in China these days is not something you want to be.
“Quite a few people have lost their heads for corruption.”
Chinese authorities have halted genetic research and ordered reviews of all similar work.
Professor Lovell-Badge said he believed Mr He had achieved the gene-editing breakthrough he had claimed.
“I'm pretty sure he's done it … I can't be absolutely certain of course, but it would be astonishing if he hadn't,” he said.
But the British researcher was just as quick to criticise.
“It is certainly possible that he has put the children's lives at risk. No-one knows what these mutations will do,” he said.
A Chinese government report has found Mr He “deliberately evaded oversight” in a quest for fame and fortune.
The investigation set up by the Health Commission of China also found the scientist raised funds himself, privately organised a team of people and forged ethical papers to enlist volunteers for the procedure.
Professor Simon Foote – director of The John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU – says it “is a straightforward criminal matter and should be treated as such”.
“The consequences of this act will be inherited by the children of those whose DNA was altered and their children,” he said.
“It is even possible that these mutated genes will form part of our contribution to the genetic makeup of generations to come.
“The consequences may be catastrophic. The only way to stop this is to monitor the future fertility of those treated.
“The other issue is that there may be health consequences for the children thus treated. Their needs to be closely monitored.”