He Jiankui (center) during a Q&A after his presentation at a meeting in Hong Kong, China, on 28 November 2018.

Imaginechina via AP Images

Scientist behind CRISPR twins sharply criticized in government probe, loses job

He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who claimed to have edited the genomes of twin baby girls in a heritable way—and earned widespread condemnation for conducting a risky procedure with little potential benefit—deliberately sidestepped regulations, dodged oversight, and used fake ethical review documents in hopes of gaining “personal fame” for a worldwide first, according to preliminary results from a Chinese governmental investigation reported today.

In response to the news, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, announced it was rescinding He’s contract as an associate professor and terminating his teaching and research activities, effective immediately.

In November 2018, He claimed to have engineered the genomes of early embryos to give the girls and their descendants resistance to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The dubious achievement, which He described at a scientific meeting and in YouTube videos in the wake of media reports, relied on CRISPR, a genome-editing technique that has never before been used on human embryos that were then implanted. He’s experiment was swiftly condemned by researchers and ethicists within China and around the world who insisted that safe, effective ways already exist to prevent HIV infection. What’s more, many questions still remain about the CRISPR technology and the potential for it to accidentally cause unwanted, dangerous changes.

The preliminary findings from an investigation by Guangdong province, released today through Xinhua, China's government-run news agency, mostly confirm previous suspicions. According to Xinhua, investigators have determined that He gathered funding and set up a research team at a lab outside his university. The researcher recruited volunteers among couples in which only the husband was HIV positive. Under normal practices, such couples are not eligible for in vitro fertilization treatments in China, Xinhua reported, so He went so far as to have noninfected individuals stand in for blood tests.

News of He's work surfaced on the eve of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, China, in late November 2018. At a special conference session, He defended his work and revealed that a second woman was pregnant. The Xinhua report did not mention the current health status of the baby girls or of the expecting mother, but did say all are under medical observation.

Xinhua reported that He's work “violated ethical principles and scientific integrity and breached relevant regulations,” and that He and associated persons and institutions “will receive punishment according to laws and regulations.” According to news reports, He's movements have been restricted since he returned to Shenzhen, with guards outside his apartment on the university campus, but he has communicated with colleagues.

I am glad to see that the Chinese authorities plan to punish He for his transgressions and that they plan to follow up to monitor the medical status of the children.

David Baltimore, California Institute of Technology

“The incident is a serious violation of national laws, regulations and ethical guidelines,” China’s National Health Commission in Beijing said in a statement posted on its website today. The country's Ministry of Science and Technology pledged to “work with relevant departments to jointly improve relevant laws and regulations and improve the scientific research ethics review system.”

“The picture that we get is that He carried out an organized effort to circumvent all regulations and be the first to produce a gene-edited child,” says biologist David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who helped organize the Hong Kong meeting and has sharply criticized He's work. “I am glad to see that the Chinese authorities plan to punish He for his transgressions and that they plan to follow up to monitor the medical status of the children.”

But the news report leaves a host of unanswered questions. It does not specify who conducted the investigation, for instance, or precisely how—or even whether—the genomes of the babies were altered. “I do hope that a more complete report will be issued including relevant data and procedures that were followed,” Baltimore says.

With reporting by Jon Cohen.