Chinese government report on gene-editing scientist – Expert Reaction

The Chinese scientist who claims to have produced the world’s first gene-edited babies reportedly “deliberately evaded oversight” according to the initial findings from a group set up to investigate his claims.

He Jiankui spoke to media in November announcing that he had used CRISPR gene editing to alter a gene related to HIV resistance in twin girls. He was widely condemned by the global scientific community, with many deeming his actions unsafe and unethical.

In the initial findings from an investigating team set up by the Health Commission of China, He was said to have raised funds himself and privately organised a team to carry out the procedure, Reuters reported. His previous employers, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said in a statement that He had been fired.

Our colleagues at the Australian and UK SMCs gathered expert reaction to the report.

Associate Professor Darren Saunders is a gene technology and cancer specialist in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of New South Wales (UNSW)

“The use of gene editing to alter the human germline without a clear medical need or careful weighing of the significant risks involved was a deeply disturbing application of powerful and promising technology, and apparently done largely for fame and fortune of the scientists(s) involved. They have not only placed the health of these babies at risk without a clear medical need, but also placed a cloud over this technology that will likely hinder its justifiable, ethical and responsible use in many other areas of real need, where it holds significant promise.

The preliminary findings reported here indicate that the scientists were deliberately operating outside ethical and regulatory boundaries, which most responsible scientists will find deeply troubling. It is really encouraging to see swift action by Chinese authorities and sends a clear statement of zero tolerance for this reckless and dangerous behaviour.”

Darren has not declared any conflicts of interest.

Dr Dimitri Perrin is a Senior Lecturer and an expert in gene editing and CRISPR technology at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT)

“Gene editing has great potential, but as soon as this story broke last November, the experiment appeared to be a poorly designed and regrettable effort to win a ‘race’ and grab attention. This latest report confirms what was feared.

Editing human embryos is premature: the long-term effects are still unclear. This experiment should not have taken place, and must not open the door to other similar studies at this stage.

However, there is a place for responsible gene editing, in health and in other domains such as agriculture. It is crucial that we openly engage with the general public so that everyone can understand more about the technology and contribute to discussions on which applications would be acceptable and which ones should stay off limits.”

Dimitri has not declared any conflicts of interest.

Dr Clovis Palmer is a Senior Monash University Fellow and head of the Immunometabolism and Inflammation Laboratory at the Burnet Institute

“Ethical guidelines are put in place to protect the public, prevent exploitation of vulnerable populations, and maintain the integrity of the scientific community and institutions. We do need to push scientific boundaries to advance humanity, but within the boundaries of ethical guidelines.

We still don’t know how safe the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 is. The presumption that this technology can be used to fight against HIV, demonstrates a lack of understanding of the challenges and tools we need to combat the epidemic. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment between 1932-1972 shows us what can go horribly wrong when science evades rigorous ethical oversight.”

Clovis has not declared any conflicts of interest.

Professor Katina Michael is from the BIT Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences at the University of Wollongong

“Critical to this investigation has been the deliberate and calculated action by the recognised scientist to avoid scrutiny of a research ethics board that has oversight over genetic and health and medical research. The evidence against the scientist demonstrates a premeditated act to circumvent due process in an academic institution.

A secondary concern has to do with the act of applying CRISPR technology in private to gene edit a baby without recognising the socioethical and legal implications for the public. This lone action will only encourage others to follow suit, especially in private practice, ignoring processes that have withstood the test of time since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We are at an inflection point in history- to forge on with limitless genetic discovery with unforeseen consequences or to comprehend what it means to be human and humane. We need commensurate safeguards in industry to ensure ethics boards hold research that is privately funded to the same scrutiny as University research. And this is a much more difficult objective to attain.”

Katina has not declared any conflicts of interest.

Sarah Norcross, Director, Progress Educational Trust (PET), said:

“Given the potential impact of Dr He’s actions on the international research and medical community, a scrupulous and transparent investigation is necessary. These initial findings by Chinese authorities are welcome, but further work will be needed to provide adequate answers to the questions other scientists have, and to help ensure that researchers everywhere in the world can make progress in this field while adhering to higher scientific and ethical standards than were evident here.”

James Lawford-Davies, Partner, Hill Dickinson, said: 

“According to Chinese state media, these are preliminary findings from an on-going investigation. While the findings may not change, it is in the interests of both the global scientific community and Professor He that this investigation is fair, objective and transparent, and that the final full report and findings are made public.”

Dr Christophe Galichet, Senior Laboratory Research Scientist, The Francis Crick Institute, said:

“Chinese official have conducted an investigation on the claim Dr He has made.  Back in November, Dr He and his team, claimed to have generated genetically modified embryos and implanted them back to the mother which led to the birth of twin girls. Since Dr He’s claims, the international scientific community has condemned He’s research on the ground of ethics and safety issues.

“Chinese officials have launched an investigating team led by the Health Commission of China in Southern Guandong province, province where Dr He did his research. I did not read the official report from the Chinese officials and my comments are based on a Reuter and RTHK articles.

“First of all, Chinese authorities have stopped Dr He’s research so no more edited embryos could be used for the purpose of reproduction. Dr He had deliberately evaded oversight from peers with the intent in creating genome editing babies according to the Chinese authorities initial finding.  Furthermore, Chinese authorities found that Dr He has forged ethical review papers so volunteers could be enrolled in his research, clearly indicating that Dr He knew that what he was doing was not ethical. Dr He carry out the creation of genome editing babies most likely to seek personal fame and possibly for profit.

“The findings from Chinese official are only initial and it is likely that more details will come to light in due course.  What the initial report from Chinese authorities indicate is that Dr He created genome editing embryos leading to pregnancy knowing that it was unethical. The investigating team clearly indicate that Dr He has violated ethic and scientific integrity as well as local regulations causing outcry locally, nationally and internationally.

“Dr He fooled Chinese authorities, peers and international scientific community for personal fame.”

Dr Yalda Jamshidi, Reader in Genomic Medicine, St George’s, University of London (SGUL), said:

“It now appears following investigations by the Chinese authorities, that as many had feared, the experiments that led to the birth of the gene-edited twins Lulu and Nana, resulted from a series of poor decisions, avoidance of regulatory and ethical frameworks, lack of scientific integrity, and most likely a quest for fame and fortune by scientist He Jiankui. Unsurprisingly, the experiments have been met with heavy criticism, particularly as the procedures used have not been tested for safety in humans, and were not carried out for any real medical need. The report will hopefully set an example with appropriate legal and punitive actions to reassure the public and scientific community that gene editing, like all potentially new medical interventions, will only be allowed where they address a true medical need, and with appropriate ethical and regulatory oversight.”

Dr Helen O’Neill, Programme Director, Reproductive Science and Women’s Health, University College London (UCL), said:

“The reports do not shed much in the way of new light on the story. There is no further clarification on what measures will be taken to prevent this happening in future, nor what will be done as punishment for He Jiankui’s lack of regard for policy, the patients and the scientific community.”

Declared interests

Sarah Norcross: “Progress Educational Trust is a charity which aims to improve choices for those affected by genetic conditions and infertility. No conflict”

Helen O’Neill: “No conflicts/nothing to declare”

Christophe Galichet: “I declare no conflict of interest”