Late last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui shocked the world when he announced that he had used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to create the world’s first genetically edited babies. A physicist by training, He’s declaration—made on YouTube, as opposed to in an academic setting—was widely condemned by the world’s scientific community. Now under house arrest by the Chinese government, He’s fate remains uncertain.
He’s work with two babies, known as Lulu and Nana, has faced widespread criticism on both moral and purely scientific reasonings. He’s defense of his procedure—that he was working to make the children resistant to HIV—has been met with derisive laughter by genetic experts who say it is “likely” that the children have received no additional benefits from the procedure. Rather, they face a lifetime of uncertainty, not knowing precisely what was altered within their genetic code.
Shortly after He attempted to defend his work at a conference, he went missing. Weeks later, it was revealed that He and his family have been living under guard in an apartment on the campus of the Southern University of Science and Technology in China’s tech hub of Shenzhen. Since then, his legal status has been uncertain.
Some of He’s colleagues are emerging in the press, to either disassociate themselves from him or bring attention to his potential plight. Robin Lovell-Badge, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, helped organise the conference in Hong Kong where He attempted to defend his work.
“He really thought that he was doing good, that what he was doing was the next big thing, and really important for the good of mankind,” says Lovell-Badge, speaking to the Telegraph.
“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.”
Lovell-Badge says that 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.” The penalty for corruption in China is execution. As the world’s leading user of the death penalty, according to Amnesty International, the country has been known to readily use the punishment.
Others, like Rice University professor Michael Deem, are working to distance themselves from He. Deem acted as He’s Ph.D. advisor in 2010 when He got his doctorate in biophysics and through lawyers has said that the two have kept in touch over the years. Initial reports indicated that the two worked closely on the CRSIPR-baby project, with Deem even present for the consent meetings with parents, which scientists across the globe have declared insufficient.
Now, through lawyers, a statement reads that “Michael does not do human research and he did not do human research on this project.” Rice is currently investigating Deem’s involvement with He.