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China condemns scientist’s claim of altering embryo genes but in a bind over its legality

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Scientist He Jiankui’s claim of altering genes of twin embryos has triggered a backlash from both the China government and scientific community.

Shanghai: China is escalating its condemnation of a researcher who said he altered the genes of twin baby girls, as the global scientific community waits for data to assess the veracity of his claims.

He Jiankui, the Shenzhen-based scientist, has said he will present his data at an international genetics conference in Hong Kong Wednesday. He shocked the world this week by claiming he altered the genes of the twin embryos to make them resistant to HIV. His representatives have not made him available for comment and he did not respond to questions by email.

The revelations have sparked allegations of fraud, three investigations in China and calls from prominent Chinese researchers for him to be punished.

Harmonicare Medical Holdings Ltd., which owns the hospital that the researcher said he got approval from for his work, said in a filing Tuesday that it believed signatures on an application to the hospital’s medical ethics committee had been forged, and that the committee never met to review He’s proposal. The Shenzhen hospital has never participated in the clinical operation related to the gene-edited babies and the twins were not born at the facility, the company said.

Science and Ethics

China’s state-backed Xinhua news agency reported Wednesday that the Chinese Union of Life Science Societies, an umbrella of 22 national-level associations, said that it strongly opposed research that violated the spirit of science and ethics, and that He’s case had “severely disturbed the order of scientific research and seriously damaged China’s international reputation in the life science field.”

Earlier, the Genetics Society of China, the Chinese Society for Cell Biology and a group of 122 scientists issued separate statements condemning He’s actions and called for the Chinese government to act. He is also under investigation by his university, the Southern University of Science and Technology, and the hospital where he supposedly had ethical approval for the experiment. Both bodies said they had no knowledge of the controversial undertaking.

Also read: Gene-Edited Babies Shock the World, But Not Investors

On Tuesday, in the clearest sign yet that the Chinese government viewed He’s project as illegal, Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping said in a press briefing in Beijing that China had outlawed the use of gene-editing for fertility purposes in 2003.

But Chinese law does not mention the use of Crispr, the revolutionary gene-editing technique that He used to alter the twins’ genetic code. By contrast the U.S. and many other countries have strictly restricted Crispr’s use.

The most recent Chinese government pronouncement, a 2017 document from the science and technology ministry, said only that gene-editing research involves great risks and urged rigorous supervision.

In his Tuesday briefing, deputy minister Xu hinted at the internal debates the Chinese government has over how it should regulate burgeoning research areas like biotechnology and artificial intelligence. China wants to be a leader in the defining technologies of the 21st century, but lax regulation risks cases like He’s.

“We are conscious that it’s a double-edged sword. Sometime we feel quite anxious,” said Xu. “To be honest, on this question, we still haven’t completely straightened out our thinking. We know there will be some negatives but we also don’t dare – because there will be negatives – to avoid technologies or advancements.” – Bloomberg

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