Controversial creator of ‘CRISPR babies’ has been released from a Chinese prison

The biophysicist shocked the world in 2018 by announcing he had used CRISPR genome-editing techniques to alter the genetic makeup of a single-cell embryo to give birth to twin girls.

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What could this mean moving forward?
Photo: CSP
CRISPR innovator is now free.

RELEASED FROM JAIL

The controversial Chinese biophysicist who created the “world’s first gene-edited children” has recently been set free after three years in a Chinese prison, it has been reported.

In 2018, He Jiankui announced a stunning claim that he has altered the genetic makeup of IVF embryos and implanted them into a woman’s uterus, leading to the birth of twin girls. 

A third child was born the following year.

Following international condemnation of the experiment, He was placed under home arrest and then 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.”

The researcher spent around three years in China’s prison system, including a period spent in detention as he awaited trial, but is now back on the streets of China.

Their parents agreed to join the experiment because the fathers of all the children had HIV and would otherwise not have had access to IVF under Chinese rules.

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.

Before his world collapsed around him, He believed he’d created a new way to “control the HIV epidemic” that would be considered for a Nobel Prize.

The research conducted was known as the “CRISPR Baby Project”.

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CRISPR BABY PROJECT

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.

Following THE report, He immediately posted several videos on YouTube announcing the birth of the fraternal twins, who he called Lula and Nana.

The experiment was met with fierce criticism around the world and inside China. Scientists said the use of genome editing served little medical purpose and could have introduced errors into the girls’ genomes.

He’s description of the experiments was never published by 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.”

While responsibility for the experiment fell on He and other Chinese team members, many other scientists knew of the project and encouraged it.

These include Michael Deem, a former professor at Rice University who participated in the experiment, and John Zhang, head of a large IVF clinic in New York who had plans to commercialize the technology.

It’s unclear whether He has plans to return to scientific research in China or another country.

However, things seem to be rumbling.

In February, according to a news report in Nature, two senior Chinese bioethicists called on China’s government to create a research program to oversee the health of the CRISPR children.

They classified the children as a “vulnerable group” and called for genetic analyses to determine whether their bodies contain genetic errors they could pass to future generations.

What does this tell you about the potential return and continuation of projects such as these?

A Brave New World, literally, pushes forward once more.

And what about the rest of the world?

Gene-editing techniques, such as CRISP, have been de-regulated in Australia since December 2019.

Could this type of push soon begin to ramp up on our shores in the near future?


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