Shenzhen, China – China has suspended He Jiankui – a scientist who claims to have produced the world's first gene-edited babies, and he now appears to be facing punishment after announcing openly many studies in the scientific community that are condemned as irresponsible.
His work was "very vile in nature", Xi Nanping, deputy minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology, told Xinhua news agency on Thursday night.
Xi said the genetic engineering of twin girls so they would not develop HIV violated scientific ethics, adding that editing human embryo genes for reproductive purposes was "explicitly prohibited" in China.
He admitted at a gene editing conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday that he had started pregnancy again, although it was too early to say whether he would reach full pregnancy.
|The embryo receives small doses of Cas9 and PCSK9 sgRNA proteins in a sperm injection microscope in a laboratory in Shenzhen. [Mark Schiefelbein/AP]|
A source confirmed to Al Jazeera that he had returned to Shenzhen, even though repeated calls to his cellphone were not answered and several messages sent to the telephone were read without response.
David Cyranoski from the journal Nature posted on social media that he was in the southern city and was ready to "cooperate fully with all questions" about his work.
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Scientists will likely face a barrage of questions from institutions in Shenzhen, as well as from the Ministry of Science and Technology. China's National Health Commission said its activities would be investigated and every mistake was "dealt with firmly", according to Xinhua.
It is uncertain what punishment he will face because the law in China is not clear about law enforcement, according to Qiu Renzong, emeritus professor of the Philosophy Institute and director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
He research has sent shock waves through the international scientific community, with many concerns about the lack of verified data and the risk of exposing healthy embryos to gene editing. Scientists have long been concerned about implications for humanity such as genetic engineering.
R Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, said that if he had held a trial in the United States "would violate public law" and involve "punishment [that] both are civil and criminal "because of the agreement required through the Food and Drug Administration for human cells and therapeutic studies in which cells are brought into pregnancy.
Qiu noted in Hunan province in 2012, three researchers were detained and then fired along with three officials who approved the trial of genetically fortified rice enriched with vitamin A in school children without their consent.
"Three scientists were disciplined, they were dismissed from their positions, and they could not apply for a grant for a certain period of time, so [He’s case] it might be similar to this, "Qiu told Al Jazeera." I don't think the police will be involved, but the ministry will discipline him. "
He said in a video released on Sunday – the same day the world learned of birth – that he used the CRISPR-cas9 tool to edit the embryo to eliminate the possibility of babies getting HIV from their father, who was infected with the virus.
Anthropologist Eben Kirksey said that CRISPR has become a magic word related to HIV because of the promise that "you only need to take care once". However, he added, there are many other promising therapies for treating HIV, and he doesn't think many in the HIV research community "put a lot of hope" in genetic editing.
|Researcher Zhou Xiaoqin, left, loads the Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA molecule into a fine glass pipette in He Jiankui's laboratory in Shenzhen [Mark Schiefelbein/AP]|
He gave a partial apology in front of the overcrowded auditorium at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, although remorse seems to be more for information about births that came out before his research had been examined by the scientific community, rather than having done so.
Scientists told delegates that he was "proud of" his work, adding that if the same situation happened and it was his child he would "try it first".
Most other researchers believe that it is still too early to advance to that point in light of the broad ethical questions that arise because they are "edited" – such as Lulu and Nana, names given to twin girls – and "humans who are not edited" beside .
"Wouldn't it be useful to try to define a global ethical code of ethics, at least the minimum agreement and what is the research and what are the standards?" asked Barbel Friedrich, director of the Krupp Alfried Institute for Advanced Study at Greifswald. "What we heard this morning is a violation of the law, which he admits, but all we need is global rules."
Institutions reject knowledge
Across the border in Shenzhen, the institution keeps away from him.
The Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission has directed the city medical expert committee to investigate Mr. He's activities.
The South University of Science and Technology, where he is a professor and is said to have carried out research without full knowledge of the university, has closed his laboratory and delayed him waiting for an investigation. The genome research website related to his work now seems inaccessible.
|One researcher adjusted the microplate containing embryos that had been injected with Cas9 and PCSK9 sgRNA proteins in a laboratory in Shenzhen. [Mark Schiefelbein/AP]|
When Al Jazeera visited the research lab, located on a large campus in the university center in northern Shenzhen, security officials refused to enter, complaining about the media trying to visit the site. The communications department official at the school did not respond to requests to discuss investigations into Mr. He's research activities.
At the main gate, a police car was parked across the street, the blue and red lights lit up.
The Shenzhen Harmonicare Women's and Children's Hospital, where conception is thought to occur, now denies involvement in His work and says they believe the signatures on paper agree that the trial was falsified. Attempts to contact officials at the hospital for further explanation were unsuccessful.
"We don't know yet whether it was made," Qiu said from the newspaper. "Some scientists, from other motivations, these young scientists, they want to make a lot of money."