China’s official Xinhua news agency has confirmed that a second woman has become pregnant as part of a controversial experiment to create the world’s first CRISPR genetically edited babies. The scientist responsible for the work has since been fired by the university he was working for, which claims he “illegally conducted the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain.”
Researcher He Jiankui made waves last year when it was announced that he had overseen an experiment leading to the birth of twin girls, Lulu and Nana, who had undergone gene alterations. The aim of the project was to modify human embryos to eliminate a gene called CCR5, thought to be responsible for potentially fatal diseases including HIV, smallpox, and cholera. Data submitted as part of the trial indicated that genetic testing has been conducted on fetuses as old as six months, dating back as far as March 2017. In total, eight volunteer couples consisting of HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers signed up to the trial. One couple dropped out during proceedings.
While widely reported on, it’s worth noting that He’s work has not been independently verified by scientists.
After the birth of the first twin girls, Jiankui recently revealed to a human genome forum in Hong Kong that there was “another potential pregnancy” as part of the experiment. This was later apparently confirmed by a provincial government investigation. The pregnant mother, along with the twin girls Lulu and Nana, will be placed under medical observation.
He Jiankui has been heavily criticized for his work, which both taps into fears about the possibility of so-called “designer babies,” as well as the problematic nature of experimenting on healthy human embryos. In an official investigation, it was concluded that He had worked without proper supervision. The case has been passed over to the ministry of public security, which may investigate it as a criminal matter.
Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, the university which previously employed He, has issued a statement saying: “Effective immediately, SUSTech will rescind the work contract with Dr. Jiankui He and terminate any of his teaching and research activities at SUSTech.”