Gene Scientist Fired by College as China Says He Broke the Law

(Bloomberg) -- Sign up for our new China newsletter, a weekly dispatch coming soon on where China stands now and where it's going next.

The Chinese scientist who altered the genes of twin baby girls as embryos was fired by his university after a government probe found he violated laws and signaled he may face a criminal investigation.

He Jiankui’s employment was terminated by the Southern University of Science and Technology, which also ended his research activities based on the results of the probe, the university said in a statement late Monday. A local government investigation found he breached China’s laws and ethics and will be “severely” dealt with, state-run Xinhua reported the same day.

Gene Scientist Fired by College as China Says He Broke the Law

The firing is the latest blow for He, who triggered an international backlash when he shocked the world with his claims of genetically-altering human embryos that resulted in births. The suspected crimes will be handed over to China’s public security agency, increasing the prospects the scientist may face criminal charges.

He, who retreated from public view following the revelation, is living under guard in university quarters in Shenzhen. He and his spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

The work by He and his team “seriously violates ethics and scientific research integrity” as well as state regulations, Xinhua reported. The investigation confirmed the birth of the genetically-altered baby girls and also a second pregnancy, according to the report. He recruited eight volunteer couples for the experiment by “forging” ethical review documents, the news agency said.

The scientist deliberately evaded regulation and supervision, raised his own funds and employed his own team for the gene-editing project on human embryos in “pursuit of personal fame and benefit,” according to Xinhua, citing the probe. The researcher violated the law in implanting the manipulated embryos into humans, according to the report.

In China, it’s banned to have manipulated embryos in vitro culture for more than 14 days, and the embryos are not allowed to be implanted into human bodies or animals, according to ethical guidelines on human embryos and cells research published in 2003.

Investigators in Guangdong province will hand over suspected crimes to the public security agency, the news report said without elaborating. The report did not say what punitive measures the government intends to take against He and his team. The twin babies and the pregnant volunteer will also be monitored, according to Xinhua.

He’s attempts at engineering the genes in human embryos in a bid to make them HIV-resistant led to his university disavowing his work, fellow researchers rebuking the surreptitiousness with which he worked and the government swooping in to conduct an investigation.

The researcher, who had said he was “proud” of his work in Hong Kong last November, more recently told a Stanford University fellow researcher that he regretted not being more transparent and open about his project.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.