The creator of the CRISPR babies has been released from a Chinese prison
Following international condemnation of the experiment, he was placed under home arrest before being detained. In December 2019, he was convicted by a Chinese court, which said the researcher had “deliberately violated” medical regulations and had “rashly applied gene editing technology to human assisted reproductive medicine.”
His release from prison was confirmed by people familiar with the situation and He answered his mobile phone when contacted early today. Before hanging up, he said that it was not convenient to speak right now.
He’s team from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen made use of CRISPR, the versatile genetic engineering tool, to alter the girls’ DNA so that they would be resistant to infection by HIV.
It is not clear if he plans to return to scientific work in China or another country. People who knew him described him as ambitious, idealistic, and naive.
Before his world fell apart, he believed he had created a new way “to control the HIV epidemic”. This would have been eligible for a Nobel Prize.
The existence of the CRISPR baby project was uncovered by MIT Technology Review on the eve of an international genome-editing summit in Hong Kong, held in November 2018. After our report, he posted several YouTube videos announcing the births of the twins, whom he called Lula or Nana.
The experiment was met with strong criticism in China and around the globe. Scientists claimed that genome editing was not used for medical purposes and could have introduced errors in the genomes of the girls. He’s not allowed to publish his description of the experiments in any scientific journal. MIT Technology Review later obtained draft copies of his paper, which one expert said was riddled with “egregious scientific and ethical lapses.”
The researcher spent around three years in China’s prison system, including a period spent in detention as he awaited trial. He has kept in touch with his scientific network in China and overseas since his release.
While He and the other Chinese team members were responsible for the experiment, many other scientists were aware of it and encouraged it. John Zhang, the head of an IVF clinic in New York, and Michael Deem, a former Rice University professor, participated in the experiment. They had plans to commercialize the technology HTML1.
Deem left his post at Rice in 2020, but the university has never released any findings or explanation about its involvement in the creation of the babies. Deem’s LinkedIn profile lists his employment with an energy consulting firm he founded.
“It is extraordinary and unusual that [He Jiankui] and some of his colleagues were imprisoned for this experiment,” says Eben Kirksey, an associate professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute, in Australia, and the author of The Mutant Project, a book about He’s experiment that includes interviews with some of the participants. “At the same time many of [his] international collaborators–like Michael Deem and John Zhang–were never sanctioned or formally censured for involvement.”
“In many ways justice has not been served,” says Kirksey.
He, who had a wife and children paid a high price. He was fired from the university and spent time in a Shenzhen prison. His punishment seems to have prevented further gene editing experiments to make babies in China. The US law prohibits the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from approving such a study.
There is also the question of justice regarding the three children who were born as a result of the experiment. Their identities are not publicly disclosed. Their parents were willing to participate in the experiment because all three children were born to HIV-positive fathers and would not otherwise have access to IVF under Chinese regulations.
In February, two senior Chinese bioethicists urged China’s government to create a program to monitor the health of CRISPR children . They called for genetic analysis to determine if the children have any genetic defects that could be passed on to future generations.
Kirksey claims that the study participants were not treated fairly. They were promised health insurance plans for their children, but he says that amid the controversy, “the insurance plans were not issued and medical bills went unpaid.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.