China has suspended the research activities of the scientists who claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies, state-run Xinhua news reported Thursday.
The moves comes after Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced Monday that two ostensibly healthy twin girls had been born this month from embryos altered to make them resistant to HIV.
Chinese authorities called He’s claim “extremely abominable in nature” and a violation of Chinese law, according to Xinhua.
“The gene-edited twins matter reported by the media has brazenly violated Chinese laws and regulations and breached the science ethics bottom line, which is both shocking and unacceptable,” said Xu Nanping, vice minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Xinhua reported.
He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claims to have used a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-cas9, which can insert or deactivate certain genes. CRISPR has been hailed as an innovation with tremendous potential, but many in the scientific community believe the technology is still experimental and not ready for human application.
It is unknown whether the procedure is safe or, if used in pregnancy, whether it can have unintended consequences for the babies later in life or for future generations.
Editing the genes of embryos intended for pregnancy is banned in many counties, including the United States. In the United Kingdom, editing of embryos may be permitted for research purposes with strict regulatory approval.
China has long been considered on the forefront of gene-editing technology, bankrolling expensive research projects and boasting less regulation in the field than Western nations.
But He’s research has raised serious ethical questions around the transparency of gene editing and sparked calls for a globally binding code of conduct.
He’s claims have neither been independently verified nor peer-reviewed. He said his research has been submitted to a scientific journal for review, without naming the publication, and apologized for the result leaking “unexpectedly.”
On Wednesday, he publicly defended his work at a summit in Hong Kong, saying he was “proud” of his achievement. He also raised the possibility of a third child being born, after announcing that a separate woman was pregnant at an early stage with a modified embryo.
But after He’s presentation, conference Chairman David Baltimore said the research was not medically necessary, as there are other treatments for HIV. Organizers of the conference called for an independent investigation to “verify this claim and to ascertain whether the claimed DNA modifications have occurred.”
After He’s findings were announced, the Chinese government ordered an “immediate investigation” into the incident.