Scientist who genetically edited babies could face death penalty
A leading geneticist who ran the conference where a Chinese scientist said he had made the world’s first “gene-edited” babies condemned him on Monday for potentially jeopardising lives and having no biology training.
Robin Lovell-Badge, organiser of the November 2018 event where China’s He Jiankui made his controversial presentation, described him as a rich man with a “huge ego” who “wanted to do something he thinks will change the world”.
He Jiankui, associate professor at 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.
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He did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Chinese authorities are investigating him and have meanwhile halted this kind of research. He could face both corruption and bribery charges – which carry the death penalty in China.
In videos posted online and at the conference, he said he believed his gene editing would help protect the girls from infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Lovell-Badge, a professor and gene expert at Britain’s Francis Crick Institute who led the organising committee for the November Human Genome Editing Summit at Hong Kong University, said it was impossible to know what he had actually done.
“If it’s true (that he edited the genomes in the way he says) then it is certainly possible that he has put the children’s lives at risk,” he told journalists in London.
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“No-one knows what these mutations will do.” Lovell-Badge said he originally invited He to the conference after hearing in scientific circles that he was “up to something”.
Lovell-Badge hoped that asking he to interact with specialists would encourage him to “control his urges”.
“Pretty much everyone he talked to had said to him: ‘Don’t do it’,” he said. “But clearly it was all too late.”
Lovell-Badge said he learned of He’s claims on the eve of the conference, and had an emergency meeting with him.
“He thought that he was doing good, and that what he was doing was the next big thing,” Lovell Badge said. But he had “no basic training in biology” and the experiments he said he had carried out “ignored all the norms of how you conduct any clinical trial or clinical experiment.”
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