‘CRISPR babies’ report reveals second woman pregnant with gene-edited child

China’s Xinhua news agency reported that scientist Jiankui He allegedly used falsified ethical review papers to persuade couples to participate in his CRISPR/Cas9 experiments.

A Chinese scientist who became an international pariah after announcing the birth of gene-edited twin girls is accused of falsifying ethical review documentation and going rogue in the pursuit of fame and fortune in a government review, according to Chinese news media.

China’s official Xinhua news agency reported Monday that scientist Jiankui He evaded supervision, raised money and recruited other researchers by himself in order to carry out his experiments, according to preliminary findings in an investigation by authorities in Guangdong province. He is an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong.

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He caused a global uproar in November when he announced in a series of videos on YouTube the birth of twin girls Lulu and Nana, who had been gene-edited using CRISPR/Cas9 technology to be resistant to HIV. Researchers in China and around the world denounced his activities, even as he defended his work at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong.

The report also revealed that a second woman is pregnant with a gene-edited baby and, along with the twin girls already born, will receive medical observation. According to Xinhua, He allegedly used forged ethical review documents to recruit eight volunteer couples – all of which included an HIV-positive male partner and HIV-negative female partner – and conducted the experiments between March 2017 and March 2018. The report also alleged that He had other people supply blood tests for the HIV-positive men, given that HIV carriers in China are not allowed to undergo assisted reproduction. Of the eight couples, two conceived, five did not, and one withdrew.

In the wake of the scandal, Feng Zhang – a pioneer of CRISPR technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Institute – stated, “Given the current early state of genome editing technology, I’m in favor of a moratorium on implantation of edited embryos, which seems to be the intention of [He’s experiment], until we have come up with a thoughtful set of safety requirements first.”

In a Jan. 16 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital cardiologist Dr. Lisa Rosenbaum wrote that a significant concern is that even existing and appropriate regulations on gene editing will not be followed, pointing to He’s research – already illegal when he conducted it – as an example. Acknowledging limitations such as cultural attitudes in China, she wrote, “Achieving social consensus will depend as much on clear communication about the ethical boundaries of the science as on reassurance that those boundaries won’t be crossed.”

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