Controversial Scientist Back at Work After Jail Time for Creating Genetically Modified Babies

Controversial Scientist Back at Work After Jail Time for Creating Genetically Modified Babies

A Chinese scientist once jailed for helping to create the world’s first genome-edited babies seems to have not missed a beat. In a recent interview, He Jiankui revealed that he is once again working in the field of human genetic engineering. These newest experiments are reportedly in compliance with ethical standards and He Jiankui has pledged that he will not work to produce any further modified humans.

In November 2018, at an international scientific conference, He shocked the world when he announced that his team had modified the genes of several human embryos, then implanted them successfully in women volunteers. The modifications, purportedly made with the gene-editing technology CRISPR/Cas9, were intended to confer immunity to HIV infection. At the time of his announcement, one woman had already given birth to twin baby sisters Lulu and Nana, while a second pregnancy and third child arrived the following year.

He’s genome-editing of living humans explicitly flouted Chinese law. And government officials investigating the matter soon alleged that He had committed other ethical violations to ensure that his experiments would proceed as planned, such as forging blood test results so that his male HIV-positive volunteers could be used for assisted reproduction. Despite some early concerns that he could face the death penalty for his actions, the widely condemned scientist was ultimately sentenced to a three-year prison term in 2019, which ended in 2022.

On Monday, Japanese news outlet The Mainichi published an interview with He Jiankui. He appears to be as busy as ever, having reportedly resumed his research into human genome embryo editing at three labs since his release from prison. The scientist hopes that the research will one day lead to treatments for rare genetic disorders such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and inherited Alzheimer’s disease. At the same time, He also promised that his work is now fully on the up-and-up.

“We will use discarded human embryos and comply with both domestic and international rules,” He told The Mainichi.

Though He did express some regrets about how he conducted his infamous experiments, claiming that the research was “too hasty,” the scientist has remained resolute about the safety and validity of his work. According to He, the children born from his experiments—now around the age of five—have shown no signs of illness or off-target genetic changes related to the editing.

“I’m proud to have helped families who wanted healthy children,” He boasted.

And while He says that he will not try to create any other modified humans, he does believe that “society will eventually accept” this kind of genetic engineering in the future.

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