He Jiankui, the Chinese Scientist Who Gene-edited Babies, May Face Death Penalty, colleague says

In November, a scientist from China made headlines across the globe. He claimed to have produced the world's first gene-edited babies. He had altered the DNA of seven human embryos to make them more resistant to HIV. So far, this had resulted in the birth of twin girls—although he said more babies may be born soon.

He Jiankui, from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, was widely condemned by the scientific community. Performing such experiments without fully understanding what the long-term effects might be was deemed extremely unethical and potentially dangerous. Furthermore, he announced his results with no real evidence backing up his claims—normally, to make a scientific breakthrough, research must be peer-reviewed by other scientists who can verify any assertions made.

Read more: Gene editing has decimated a population of mosquitoes in "major breakthrough" for malaria eradication

Following his announcement, the Chinese government launched an investigation into He's claims. According to China's Xinhua news agency, authorities ordered the suspension of He's research activities, saying it was "extremely abominable in nature," and that it violated the laws and ethics of the nation. He was also suspended from the institution where he was working.

Further intrigue arose when He apparently went missing, however it later emerged he was staying in a government-owned apartment—possibly under some form of house arrest.

In an article in the U.K.'s Telegraph, one of He's colleagues has said He could face the death penalty if charges of corruption and bribery are brought against him.

Robin Lovell-Badge, from London's Francis Crick Institute, organized the summit where He's findings were announced. He told the newspaper: "All the reports suggest he [is at a] university owned apartment and there are a quite a number of guards. It's not clear whether he's under guard, meaning house arrest or the guards are there to protect him. I suspect both.

"There is an official investigation led by the ministries of science and health. Lots of people are probably going to lose their jobs. He wasn't the only one involved in this obviously. So how has he got them to do all this work? He could be had up on all sorts of charges of corruption, and being guilty of corruption in China these days is not something you want to be. Quite a few people have lost their heads for corruption."

Since his announcement, He has been dubbed "China's Frankenstein." But despite the uproar he continued to defend his work, saying he was proud of what he had done and that his work could lead to disease prevention in millions of children.

Lovell-Badge said He believed that he was "doing good," and that his research would be the "next big thing." According to the Telegraph, He—who trained as a physicist—had made millions selling genetic sequencing technologies and was largely funding his work himself.

"Here you have a physicist who knows little biology, is very rich, has a huge ego, wants to be the first at doing something that will change the world," Lovell-Badge said. "Pretty much everyone he talked to had said 'don't do it.' We'd heard he had ethical approval, so we were getting scared. But clearly it was all too late."

He Jiankui
Chinese scientist He Jiankui at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on November 28. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images
He Jiankui, the Chinese Scientist Who Gene-edited Babies, May Face Death Penalty, colleague says | Tech & Science