Chinese Scientist Behind Gene-Edited Babies Could Face Death Penalty

Chinese Scientist Behind Gene-Edited Babies Could Face Death Penalty
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The Chinese scientist who announced to the world in November 2018 that he had created a pair of gene-edited twin girls could face the death penalty for corruption and bribery charges, a British geneticist fears.

News of the birth of twin baby girls whose DNA had been edited using CRISPR technology to resist HIV broke on November 26. He Jiankui, the scientist who purported to have created the gene-edited babies, said at the time that a possible 3rd pregnancy was underway. The announcements sparked outrage among the scientific community.

In December, Jiankui went missing, providing the first indication that his work amounted to a monumental and costly blunder. And, it seems, the decision could cost the man his life.

Jiankui is now thought to be living under armed guard at a state-owned apartment in Shenzhen, China, geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London, says.

In November 2018, Lovell-Badge organized the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong. When rumors started to spread about Jiankui’s work, Lovell-Badge decided to invite the 34-year-old scientist to attend the summit. The goal was not to give Jiankui a platform or to encourage his work, but to try and make him shy away from it. Or, as Lovell-Badge puts it, “to control his urges.”

It was during the summit that Jiankui admitted to using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to modify human embryos.

Though Jiankui expressed pride in his work, the scientific community was horrified that the scientist had chosen to conduct his work in secret and failed to go through the proper channels.

In fact, it didn’t take long for the Chinese government to order a halt to Jiankui’s experiments.

Lovell-Badge said: [2]

“He really thought that he was doing good, that what we has doing was the next big thing, and really important for the good of mankind.

Pretty much everyone he talked to had said ‘don’t do it.’ We’d heard he had ethical approval, so we were getting scared. But clearly it was all too late.”

Now, Lovell-Badge and other scientists in the UK say Jiankui could very well face bribery and corruption charges, both of which carry the death penalty in China. When he implanted the genetically modified embryos into the mother instead of destroying them, as per convention, he violated established research guidelines. Those guidelines carry the same legal weight as established laws in China. [1]

Lovell-Badge said:

“There is an official investigation led by the ministries of science and health. Lots of people are probably going to lose their jobs, he wasn’t the only one involved in this, obviously. So how has he got them to do all this work? 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.”

Read: World Health Organization to Study Gene Editing Amid Controversial Developments

China doesn’t take corruption lightly these days. Early last year, new reforms were introduced by the government, including a list of offenders. As a result of their misdeeds, scientists who step outside the boundaries of research guidelines could be barred from receiving grants or research positions. Then, in December 2018, the government announced it would use its controversial social credit system to target scientists who break from convention.

Jiankui was in the unique position of being flush with his own cash, which allowed him to personally fund the research and hire lab technicians and IVF doctors to conduct the experiments.

Lovell-Badge said:

“Here you have a physicist who knows very little biology, is very rich, has a huge ego, wants to be the first at doing something that will change the world.”

Chinese investigators will have to decide how much of a role Jiankui’s collaborators played in the research, and whether they were fully aware of the illegality of the work.

As the process plays out, researchers associated with Jiankui are trying to distance themselves from the shamed scientist. Professor Michael Deem from Rice University was Jiankui’s PhD advisor in 2010 when he received his doctorate in biophysics. [2]

Deem has said through lawyers that he and Jiankui have kept in touch over the years, with initial reports showing the 2 worked closely together on the CRISPR-baby project. Deem was reportedly present for the consent meetings with the parents, which scientists worldwide have called “insufficient.”

Study: CRISPR Gene-Editing Ignites Tons of Unintentional Genetic Mutations

In a statement issued through is lawyers, Deem said that “Michael does not do human research and he did not do human research on this project.”

Rice University is currently investigating Deem’s involvement with Jiankui.


[1] Gizmodo

[2] Popular Mechanics