29/11/2018 11:02 AM IST | Updated 29/11/2018 11:03 AM IST

Chinese Gene-Editing Scientist Under Scrutiny, Says Proud Of His Work

He Jiankui said he used a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter embryos for seven couples.

China Stringer Network / Reuters
A file photo of He Jiankui.

A Chinese scientist who has claimed that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies is under investigation by Chinese officials.

He Jiankui, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, had said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments.

The National Health Commission has ordered local officials in Guangdong province—where Shenzhen is located—to investigate He's actions, reported AP. He's employer, Southern University of Science and Technology, also said in a statement that it was not informed about his human gene-editing work and has opened an investigation, the report added.

The university, according to BBC, said that He had been on unpaid leave since February. The scientist also said that the university was not aware of his experiment, which he funded by himself.

On Wednesday, while addressing around 700 people attending the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong, He said that he is proud of his work.

"For this case, I feel proud. I feel proudest," He said, when challenged by several peers at the conference.

Asked whether there were any other edited gene pregnancies as part of his trials, He said there was another "potential" pregnancy and replied "yes" to a follow-up question as to whether it was a "chemical pregnancy", which refers to an early-stage miscarriage.

It was unclear whether the pregnancy had ended or not.

He, according to Reuters, also shrugged off concerns that the research was conducted in secrecy, explaining that he had engaged the scientific community over the past three years.

"This study has been submitted to a scientific journal for review," He said, but did not name the journal.

In videos posted online this week, He said he used a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born this month.

According to The Guardian, He said that he wanted to prevent HIV being inherited from a parent because so many children were affected by the virus in China. Eight couples had enrolled in the study while one dropped out, and the criteria was that the father be HIV positive and the mother be HIV negative.

Scientists and the Chinese government have denounced He's work, and a hospital linked to his research suggested its ethical approval had been forged.

The conference moderator, Robin Lovell-Badge, said the summit organisers were unaware of the story until it broke this week.

Nobel laureate David Baltimore called He's work irresponsible. "I think there has been a failure of self regulation by the scientific community because of a lack of transparency," The Guardian quoted Baltimore as saying.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology that allows scientists to essentially cut and paste DNA, raising hope of genetic fixes for disease. However, there are concerns about safety and ethics.

The scientists at the conference pressed He to prove that the couples taking part in the research were aware of all the risks involved. He said that all the participants had a "good education background" and went through two rounds of discussions with him and his team, according to Reuters.

(With inputs from Reuters)