China halts work by team who claimed 'world's first gene-edited babies'

He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong. Credit: Kin Cheung/AP

China’s government has ordered a halt to work by a medical team that claimed to have helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies.

Vice minister of science and technology Xu Nanping told state broadcaster CCTV that his ministry is strongly opposed to the efforts which reportedly produced twin girls born earlier this month.

Mr Xu called the team’s actions illegal and unacceptable and said an investigation had been ordered.

Researcher He Jiankui claims to have altered the DNA of the twins to try to make them resistant to infection with the Aids virus.

He Jiankui at the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong. Credit: AP

Several scientists have condemned the experiment and government groups are investigating.

There is no independent confirmation of what Mr He says he did.

He has said a second pregnancy may be under way.

Mr He’s experiment "crossed the line of morality and ethics adhered to by the academic community and was shocking and unacceptable", Mr Xu said.

A group of leading scientists gathered in Hong Kong this week for an international conference on gene editing, the ability to rewrite the code of life to try to correct or prevent diseases.

Workers view a time lapse image of embryos on a computer screen at a lab in Shenzhen Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Although the science holds promise for helping people already born and studies testing that is under way, a statement issued on Thursday by the 14-member conference leaders said it was irresponsible to try it on eggs, sperm or embryos except in lab research because not enough is known yet about its risks or safety.

The conference was rocked by the Chinese researcher’s claim to have helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies.

Conference leaders called for an independent investigation of the claim by Mr He, who spoke to the group on Wednesday as international criticism of his claim mounted.

Mr He speaking at a conference in Hong Kong. Credit: PA

He was scheduled to speak again at the conference on Thursday, but left Hong Kong and sent a statement saying: "I will remain in China, my home country, and co-operate fully with all inquiries about my work. My raw data will be made available for third party review."

Several prominent scientists said the case showed a failure of the field to police itself and the need for stricter principles or regulations.

"It’s not unreasonable to expect the scientific community” to follow guidelines, said David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from California Institute of Technology who led the panel.

Gene editing for reproductive purposes might be considered in the future "but only when there is compelling medical need", with clear understanding of risks and benefits, and certain other conditions, said Dr Victor Dzau, president of the US National Academy of Medicine.

"Not following these guidelines would be an irresponsible act," he added.

Other sponsors of the three-day conference are the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom and the US National Academy of Sciences and US National Academy Sciences.