LONDON—A rogue Chinese scientist who caused outrage last year when he said he had created the world’s first “gene-edited” babies in an attempt to protect them from HIV may also have put them at risk with a “foolish” choice of gene, experts said on June 3.
He Jiankui, then an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, sparked an international scientific and ethical row when he said he had used a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born in November 2018.
He said he had targeted a gene known as CCR5 and edited it in a way he believed would protect the girls from infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
But in a study published in the journal Nature Medicine on Monday, scientists found that people who have two copies of a so-called “Delta 32” mutation of CCR5–which protects against HIV infection in some people—also have a significantly higher risk of premature death.
The researchers, Xinzhu Wei and Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley, said their findings showed the unintended consequences of introducing mutations in humans.
Robin Lovell-Badge, a leading geneticist and the organizer of a conference where He Jiankui made his revelation, said the results showed the Chinese scientist “was foolish to choose CCR5 to mutate in his attempts at germline genome editing.”
“We simply do not yet know enough about the gene,” said Lovell-Badge, a professor and gene expert at Britain’s Francis Crick Institute.
He Jiankui could not immediately be reached for comment.
Other specialists agreed the findings underline a need for extreme caution when considering possible human applications of gene editing technologies.
“This study should act as a stark warning that manipulation of the human genome with the aim of reducing susceptibility to specific diseases is not without considerable risk,” said Andrew Freedman, an infectious diseases expert at Cardiff University.
The Berkeley team’s study analyzed genotype and death register details from more than 400,000 people registered at the UK Biobank— an database of health and genetic information.
They found that people who have two copies of the Delta 32 mutation are about 20 percent less likely to reach age 76 compared with people who have one or no copies.
Chinese authorities immediately denounced He when he made his claim last year, and issued a temporary halt to research activities involving the editing of human genes. He was fired after a subsequent Chinese health commission investigation found he had “deliberately evaded oversight.”
Backed by the Chinese Regime
He’s “achievement” was initially reported positively by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) state-run newspaper People’s Daily on Nov. 27. However, following international condemnation, the Party’s attitude quickly turned around.
On Nov. 29, the CCP ordered a temporary halt to gene editing research.
He was brought back to the university and is under house arrest on campus by the university’s president, Chen Shiyi, on Nov. 28, reported Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao.
This gene-editing technology was invented in the United States and is relatively uncomplicated to replicate. However, the international scientific community has strict protocols against its use on human subjects. Observers believe that this experiment could only happen under the environment of atheism and moral lawlessness created by the CCP.
Caoji, the online alias of a netizen who introduced himself as a former science professor at a university in Shanghai, wrote on Twitter on Nov. 30 that He’s “Gene-Editing Baby” experiment was promoted by high-ranking CCP officials. He’s university, SUST, was responsible for the project, and He carried it out in secret.
With hundreds of millions of yuan in funding at SUST, and given that He is a researcher associated with the CCP’s “Thousand Talents Plan,” Caoji believes that the experiment could not have occurred without state backing.
The “Thousand Talents Plan,” an ambitious initiative to attract foreign experts to China, is of particular concern for U.S. officials. Established by the Chinese communist regime in December 2008 to bring academics and researchers to China, the program has been described by the U.S. National Intelligence Council as a means of enabling technology transfer to China from the United States.
Caoji believes that He’s real mistake, in the eyes of the CCP, is not that he violated research ethics, but that he “inadvertently leaked a state secret.”
By Kate Kelland. Epoch Times writer Sunny Chao contributed to this report.