The big mystery at the centre of China’s gene-edited baby scandal: where is scientist He Jiankui?

Stephen Chen

While the whereabouts of a Chinese scientist at the centre of a gene-editing controversy remain a mystery, most of his research data released publicly this week “for the first time” has been available for about a year, according to Chinese scientists.

He Jiankui, former associate professor of life science at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, shocked the world last year when he announced that he had edited the genes of twin Chinese girls to prevent them from inheriting HIV from their father.

The development made the girls the world’s first gene-edited babies and unleashed a storm of criticism from the international scientific community and Chinese authorities for unethical use of the technology.

On Tuesday, MIT Technology Review released excerpts of a manuscript submitted by He to a Western journal about a year ago, together with some experts’ comments.

The reviewers concluded that the He’s experiment could not be dubbed a success, and the twins – known only as Lulu and Nana – might not have lifelong immunity to HIV as He expected.

“Instead, the embryos/eventual babies got novel variations, whose effects are not clear,” the report quoted Stanford University law professor Hank Greely as saying.

Another reviewer of the manuscript, Fyodor Urnov, deputy director at the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences, said He did not honestly interpret the data.

It is technically impossible to determine whether an edited embryo ‘did not show any off-target mutations’ without destroying that embryo by inspecting every one of its cells

Fyodor Urnov, deputy director at the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences

“It is technically impossible to determine whether an edited embryo ‘did not show any off-target mutations’ without destroying that embryo by inspecting every one of its cells,” Urnov said.

While not disputing the conclusions, a Shanghai-based life scientist said the assessment was already widely accepted among researchers after He released most of the data in the paper at a press conference in Hong Kong in December last year.

“He has already made public the data of his experiments. The research communities in China and around the world have concluded this is bad science. I don’t understand why the American media is frying up this cold dish,” the life scientist who requested not to be named due to the controversy of the issue.

However, there is still a big question mark over He’s status and whereabouts.

Chen Bin, an official at the discipline inspection office of his former university, said even he had no information on the handling of the case.

“I have not been involved,” he told the South China Morning Post on Wednesday.

The Chinese authorities had said that the incident would be thoroughly investigated, and He and his collaborators punished depending on the outcome.

But so far there has been no public update.

Hong Kong and Beijing scientists use gene editing to find cure for superbug

One Chinese researcher informed about the investigation said the authorities could be hesitating to release their findings because of the breadth of the scandal.

“I think the results will be released eventually [though],” the researcher said, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Science magazine reported in August that as many as 60 people overseas and within China could have been informed about the controversial experiment before it was made public.

Chinese scientist He Jiankui reacts during a panel discussion after his speech at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in November last year. Photo: AFP

The scandal had a huge impact on life science research in China. The Chinese authorities rushed in a series of regulations to tighten up the loose controls on work in laboratories.

Both the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the two biggest public funders on scientific studies, also issued new rules to punish unethical experiments in life science and other disciplines.

Designer babies: Chinese scientist ‘may have created unintended mutations’

Meanwhile, scientists in China and around the world have continued to work on gene-editing techniques to fight diseases and prolong human life.

But unlike He’s experiment, some of the new technologies, such as genetic base-editing, do not require cutting genetic strands apart. Some recent studies in China and the United States indicated that such technology could be used on humans faster than expected, with some clinical trials starting in a year or two.

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