Scientist who claimed to create gene-edited CRISPR babies under investigation

Jiankui He's work has been condemned by members of the scientific community. Now he's facing formal probes.

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Jiankui He

YouTube/The He Lab

The Chinese scientist who described the first use of CRISPR to genetically modify human embryos is being investigated by his university and a local medical ethics board. 

On Sunday, Jiankui He claimed to have successfully edited the genes of twin girls, releasing a recorded statement to YouTube about the breakthrough. He said the twin girls, "Lulu and Nana," were born healthy after their embryos were genetically modified to make them more resistant to HIV infection. The research was first detailed by MIT's Technology Review.

Watch this: The controversy surrounding CRISPR gene-editing

Media reports triggered Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology, where He is currently on unpaid leave, to release a statement Monday explaining that the organisation was "deeply shocked" and is trying to establish communications with He to clarify the extent of his research. The university condemned He's work, saying it "seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct" and the university was "unaware of the project and its nature." It's calling on "international experts to form an independent committee" to probe the matter.

He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

follow-up report from MIT Technology Review noted that the Shenzhen City Medical Ethics Expert Board will also be investigating He's research. The former medical director of the hospital where He conducted his trial stated he has no recollection of giving He the go-ahead to perform his clinical trial.

"Experiments like this risk setting back the entire field. Science operates under a social licence -- scientists work within limits defined by broader community concerns,"  said Darren Saunders, associate professor in the school of medical sciences at the University of New South Wales, in an emailed statement. "Ignoring those boundaries risks a justified backlash and fear that can set back the entire field by decades."

The study has been met with skepticism across the world. Preeminent CRISPR researchers, such as Feng Zhang, are concerned about a lack of transparency at He's laboratory. As of writing, He's work has not been published or independently peer-reviewed and the claims remain unsubstantiated. 

But bigger ethical and moral questions are now being asked -- some consider his work irresponsible and potentially illegal, since it may not have got the required approvals. 

"Whether the results stand up to scrutiny or not, we need as a society to think hard and fast about when and where we are willing to take the risks that come with any new therapeutic treatment, particularly ones that could affect future generations," said Dr. Yalda Jamshidi, senior lecturer in human genetics at St. George's University of London. 

The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing begins in Hong Kong on Tuesday, Nov. 27, and He is expected to make an appearance at the event. 

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