CNN:- The Chinese government has ordered an “immediate investigation” into the alleged delivery of the world’s first genetically edited babies, as experts worldwide have voiced outrage at such use of the technology.
The pushback comes amid claims made online by scientist He Jiankui that twin girls had been born with DNA altered to make them resistant to HIV, a groundbreaking move that could spark huge scientific and ethical dilemmas.
He, a professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claims that his lab had been editing embryos’ genetic codes for seven couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization.
In a video posted to YouTube on Monday, the Chinese researcher said that one of the pregnancies had been successful and that ostensibly healthy twin girls Lulu and Nana had been born “a few weeks ago.”
He claims that he used a tool known as CRISPR-cas9, which can insert or deactivate certain genes. In his YouTube video, He describes the procedure as having “removed the doorway through which HIV enters.”
But in a statement posted Tuesday morning, China’s National Health Commission said that it had “immediately requested the Guangdong Provincial Health Commission to seriously investigate and verify” the claims made by He Jiankui.
The statement follows a move by the Chinese hospital named in He’s ethical approval documents, Shenzhen Harmonicare Women’s and Children’s Hospital, to deny all involvement in the procedures.
“We can ensure that the research wasn’t conducted in our hospital nor were the babies born here,” a hospital representative told CNN. The hospital confirmed that two of the doctors named in He’s documents work at the hospital and suggested that an internal investigation was underway.
The Shenzhen Health and Family Planning Commission denounced the legitimacy of the hospital ethics committee and the review process that approved the application. It confirmed that an investigation was launched Monday to “verify the authenticity of the ethical review of the research reported by media.”
He’s University, Southern University of Science and Technology, said in a statement that the researcher has been on leave since February 1.
“The research work was carried out outside the school by Associate Professor He Jiankui. He did not report to the school or the department of biology. The university and the biology department are not aware of it,” the institution said, adding that “the Academic Committee of the Department of Biology believes that it seriously violates academic ethics and academic norms.”
He’s claims have neither been independently verified nor peer-reviewed. But if they’re true, the procedure will raise significant ethical questions around gene editing and so-called designer babies.
Editing the genes of embryos intended for pregnancy is banned in many counties, including the United States. In the UK, editing of embryos may be permitted for research purposes with strict regulatory approval.
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.