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CRISPR babies: the Chinese government may have known more than it let on

The latest developments in the gene-editing saga raise more questions than answers.

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He Jiankui is the first researcher to edit the DNA of embryos resulting in a live birth, defying international scientific norms. Did the Chinese government secretly support him?
Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

When scientist He Jiankui announced he’d conducted an experiment that led to the birth of twin girls with CRISPR-edited genomes in November, the international scientific community swiftly condemned him. In the uproar that followed, the Chinese government, He’s university, and the hospital where the babies were born distanced themselves from the researcher, who claimed he was the first scientist known to use CRISPR to edit human embryos resulting in a live birth — and that a third CRISPR baby was on the way.

But there were also glaring inconsistencies in the official version of events. As the Washington Post reported, a hospital executive appeared on camera in an Associated Press video applauding He’s work, which seemed strange given that the hospital later denounced him. And an informed consent form He used stated that his university funded the experiment.

Speculation swirled about whether, perhaps, elements within the Chinese government supported He’s work to get ahead of other countries also experimenting with CRISPR technology, later using He as a fall guy.

Over the past couple of weeks, new details have emerged that further complicate the narrative around He’s CRISPR baby experiment, which He said was focused on making the babies resistant to HIV. Stat News published evidence showing that the Chinese government and He’s university indeed may have been more invested in He’s experiment than they previously let on.

That story follows a disturbing report from the MIT Technology Review that suggested He could have been seeking to enhance the brains of the babies he experimented on, not just aiming to prevent their HIV risk. Here’s what we know and don’t know.

The Chinese government may have known more about the CRISPR babies than it let on

Shortly after He announced his experiment, China’s National Health Commission ordered an investigation of He’s research. In January, an initial government report found that He “seriously violated” state laws in pursuit of “personal fame and fortune.” His university, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, fired him and said his experiment was done “outside of the school.”

He might also face criminal charges, according to Nature, for potentially coercing patients to stay in his study by threatening financial penalties if they dropped out, and faking ethics review documents.

Overall, He has been painted in the media — including in China — as a rogue actor and bad apple, tinkering quietly in a lab while smashing through norms and local laws to feed his ego. He also claimed that he privately funded the work while on unpaid leave from his job as a professor.

But according to a slide presentation, the clinical trials registry, and patient consent forms obtained by journalist Jane Qiu for Stat, three Chinese government institutions were listed as the funders of He’s experiment: the Ministry of Science and Technology (the nation’s federal science agency), the Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Commission, and Southern University of Science and Technology, where He was a professor.

The Stat story depicts He as a “darling” of China’s science ministry, whose previous research on a DNA sequencing device was even featured on China’s state television news. He had also reportedly been trying to convince the government of the southern province of Hainan to launch IVF clinics that specialized in germline editing — which involves tinkering with the DNA in embryos, eggs, and sperm to alter heritable traits.

It’s possible He lied about the government support in his study disclosures to gain credibility, or that these agencies didn’t know how He would use their money. In an email to Stat, the science ministry denied any involvement in the research, saying that “based on the preliminary investigation, it did not fund He’s activities of human genome editing.”

New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who wasn’t involved in the research, pointed out that funding research on human embryos is not illegal in China, and it’s possible the government or He’s university “funded the human embryo research, but were not aware He was going to put them into women and try to produce a baby with modification.” That would help explain the condemnation by Chinese institutions since He’s announcement.

On the other hand, “If the documents are correct,” Qiu writes at Stat, “they would suggest China is supporting research that the US and other countries consider unethical, and raise doubts about the preliminary conclusion of a government investigation that He acted mostly on his own.”

The findings certainly raise questions about what really happened with the CRISPR baby study, and who was behind it. In addition to the ongoing investigations in China, Stanford has opened an investigation into what its faculty knew before the experiment, since at least three faculty members seemed to be privy to He’s intentions — the most of any institution. Michael Deem of Rice University — a former adviser of He and potentially the most senior scientist who knew about his experiment — is also under investigation.

For now, the current health status of the three babies isn’t known, and there’s no clear evidence about what exactly He did, since he hasn’t yet published a report on his study or shared all his data for peer review.

He may have enhanced the brains of the CRISPR babies

In another twist of events, He may have also attempted to enhance the CRISPR babies’ brains to improve their intelligence, according to a February 21 report from Antonio Regalado at the MIT Technology Review.

The official, stated objective of He’s experiment was to disable a gene called CCR5 so the girls might be resistant to potential infection with HIV. He justified his experiment two ways. First, he made a human case: that the father of the girls had HIV and wanted to ensure his children would never suffer like he has. Second, he made a scientific case: that CCR5 is a well-studied genetic mutation and there’s “real-world medical value” to figuring out how CRISPR can be used to cripple it and prevent HIV.

Many people in the science community did not agree with that reasoning. Hank Greely, a Stanford law and ethics professor, called the experiment “reckless [because] of a terrible benefit/risk ratio for the baby.” Others deemed the study “monstrous,” “unconscionable,” and “premature,” also noting that CCR5 plays a role in fighting infections, including West Nile virus, so the babies might be vulnerable.

He previously stated that he’s “against genome editing for enhancement.”

But now a more complicated story is emerging. The CCR5 gene has been shown in mice to enhance cognition and memory, and Regalado reports that scientists believe He may have gone after CCR5 in an attempt to enhance the brains of the babies.

“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” Alcino J. Silva, a University of California Los Angeles neurobiologist who helped discover CCR5’s effect on memory, told Regalado.

To be clear, there’s no direct evidence that He set out to boost the babies’ cognitive function. And there are so many genes and factors involved in shaping intelligence, it’s questionable that a tweak in one might have an impact.

But the link between the gene and intelligence is suggestive, and it could help explain why He would have bothered editing embryos in order to prevent an infection that is both entirely treatable (with antiretroviral therapies) and preventable by much less risky means (safe sex).

Researchers are still calling for a “take it slow” approach on CRISPR in humans

Most experts still think CRISPR isn’t ready for tinkering with in humans outside of a serious medical need. A 2017 National Academies of Sciences report on gene editing stated that clinical trials could be greenlit in the future “for serious conditions under stringent oversight” but “genome editing for enhancement should not be allowed at this time.”

There are real limits to what CRISPR can do, at least right now. Scientists have recently learned that the approach to gene editing can inadvertently wipe out and rearrange large swaths of DNA in ways that may imperil human health. That follows recent studies showing that CRISPR-edited cells can inadvertently trigger cancer.

That’s why the research community has generally advocated for a slow, cautious approach to gene-editing human embryos — which makes He’s experiment, and the fact that the government may have supported it, all the more shocking.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He said last year. On whether others follow his lead, he added, “Society will decide what to do next.” Or perhaps the Chinese government already has.

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