Scientist who genetically edited babies may get death penalty
Chinese physicist under armed guard could face charges for corruption and bribery, say British scientists
The Chinese scientist who created the world’s first genetically edited babies is living under armed guard and could face the death penalty, colleagues believe.
He Jiankui shocked the world in November 2018 when he announced he had altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatment to protect them against contracting HIV, leading to the birth of twin girls with engineered DNA.
Since then he has received death threats and the Chinese government has launched an investigation into his work. He has been confined to a state-owned flat in the city of Shenzhen since December.
Scientists in Britain who have been in touch believe he could face charges for corruption and bribery, which in China can incur the death penalty. He also broke guidelines that ban genetically altered embryos being implanted into a human, and which experts say are as legally binding as laws.
Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, who organised the genetics summit in Hong Kong where the finding was announced, said: “All the reports suggest he is in a university-owned apartment and there are a quite a number of guards. It’s not clear whether he’s under guard, meaning house arrest or the guards are there to protect him. I suspect both.
“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.”
He made about £40m selling genetic sequencing technologies and it is thought he was able to carry out his experiments unobserved by funding the work himself, recruiting lab technicians and IVF doctors to handle the delicate procedures.
He is a physicist, not a biologist, by training and it is unlikely he undertook any of the gene editing or implantation himself.
Lovell-Badge originally invited He to the summit after learning he “was up to something” and hoped that introducing him to other scientists might help him to “control his urges”.
His hero was Bob Edwards, the British IVF pioneer behind the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby, in 1978.
“He really thought that he was doing good, that what he was doing was the next big thing, and really important for the good of mankind,” added Lovell-Badge, who was speaking at a briefing in central London about the experiments.
“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.
“Here you have a physicist who knows little biology, is very rich, has a huge ego, wants to be the first at doing something that will change the world.”
He said his goal was to give the babies a natural ability to resist HIV but Lovell-Badge said it was unnecessary since IVF techniques can already remove the infection before implantation.
Researchers are also worried that he may have left the babies more susceptible to influenza. The Delta32 mutation to the CCR5 gene can make flu more deadly, according to some animal studies.
– © The Daily Telegraph