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Chinese government may have helped fund controversial CRISPR babies experiment

The controversial “CRISPR babies” experiment in China might have been carried out with the support of the Chinese government. According to a report by STAT, three governmental institutions — including China’s science ministry — may have contributed funding to the gene-altering experiments, which were harshly criticized by the international scientific community.

STAT claims to have seen a slide presentation prepared by researcher He Jiankui and his team. It listed funding sources for the experiment including China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Commission, and Southern University of Science and Technology, where He was employed. While it is possible that these institutions were not aware of how their grant money was being used, if they did have knowledge of this it would mean that China funded research widely condemned as unethical.

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News of the experiments first broke toward the end of last year. In November, Jiankui announced that he had overseen an experiment leading to the birth of twin girls, Lulu and Nana, who had undergone gene alterations. Since then, a second pregnancy has been confirmed by China’s official Xinhua news agency. In total, eight volunteer couples signed up to the trial. One couple dropped out during proceedings. Data submitted as part of the trial suggests that genetic testing was carried out on fetuses as old as six months.

The aim of the project was to modify human embryos in order to eliminate a gene called CCR5. This gene is thought to be responsible for potentially fatal diseases including HIV, smallpox, and cholera. A recent report suggests that the research may also have impacted on the cognition and memory of the gene-altered infants.

A previous investigation by China’s Guangdong provincial health commission concluded that He Jiankui had acted alone, and raised funding without official endorsements. It also claimed that He had forged an “informed consent” form and violated Chinese regulations. Both the Shenzhen government and the university He was employed at denied knowledge of the CRISPR baby experiments. If it turns out that, in fact, He Jiankui was supported by China’s government, this whole case suddenly becomes even more complex than it already is.

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