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Controversial genome-editing scientist Dr He is alive and under guard

14 January 2019
Appeared in BioNews 982

Chinese scientist Dr He Jiankui, who claimed to have created the world's first genome edited babies, is said to be alive and well, and under guard at home.

News reports had previously suggested he may face the death penalty for his actions, including charges of corruption.

However, Professor Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London, who is also Chair of Trustees at the Progress Educational Trust (the charity that publishes BioNews), told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on 8 January that he had received an assurance that Dr He was safe.

'He read the newspapers that came out overnight, which suggested that he may face the death penalty, so he sent me an email overnight to say that he's fine,' Professor Lovell-Badge said. 'I think he's obviously trying to build up his own case to defend his actions.'

Professor Lovell-Badge continued to say that it was still unclear whether Dr He was under arrest. 'According to Chinese news reports, he's in an apartment at the university where he has an appointment, and there are guards,' said Professor Lovell-Badge. 'I have no idea whether they're armed or not.'

Dr He was thought to be missing (see BioNews 979) and had not been seen since November when he announced the birth of twin girls whose DNA had been edited using CRISPR/Cas9 to protect them from HIV (see BioNews 977).

The Telegraph had reported Dr He could face corruption and bribery charges, both of which carry the death penalty in China. He may also face charges of breaking research guidelines which ban genetically modified embryos from being implanted into a human – guidelines which, in China, carry similar weight to laws.

However, Dr He had also been in touch with a US scientist regarding his safety. STAT News reported Dr William Hurlbut, of Stanford University in California, saying that Dr He and his family are in a university apartment at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, surrounded by guards while Dr He's work is investigated.

'He didn't convey to me that he finds the guards a constraining force at all, but instead feels they are protecting him,' said Dr Hurlbut. Dr He was reportedly receiving threatening emails about his controversial experiment and felt vulnerable.

Dr He claims he was able to fund his work by himself, as he made around £40 million selling genetic sequencing technologies. As a result, it appears that no funding body actually validated his research. Although Dr He's goal was to give the babies a natural ability to resist HIV, Professor Lovell-Badge said this did not meet a clear medical need and was not based on robust pre-clinical research.

This controversial episode has sparked a broader debate. According to both Professor Lovell-Badge and Dr Hurlbut, detailed protocols must be drawn up, to enable responsible progress in this field while seeking to ensure that something like this does not happen again.

'When it comes down to discussions about what the investigation has shown, what should happen and what we need to do, it's a much bigger story. This is not just about [Dr He],' Dr Hurlbut told The Straits Times. 'It's about the whole meaning of how we govern and guide international science.'

15 April 2019 - by Jen Willows 
Genome editing was the subject up for discussion at the Progress Educational Trust's 'Germline in the Sand' event, held at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh on 19 March 2019. The discussion, which was supported by the Scottish Government sought to explore the scientific and ethical boundaries of genome editing, and what place this technology should have within our society...
18 February 2019 - by Dr Sam Sherratt 
The World Health Organization is convening an 18-member committee of scientific experts from around the globe next month with the goal of developing international standards for the oversight of human genome editing...
11 February 2019 - by Jen Willows 
Stanford University in California is reviewing staff interactions with Dr He Jiankui, as it emerges that he was in contact with academics at multiple institutions...
28 January 2019 - by Charlotte Spicer 
A second pregnancy established with a genome-edited embryo is ongoing, Chinese authorities have confirmed...
7 January 2019 - by Sandy Starr 
The eminent developmental biologist Professor Robin Lovell-Badge has been appointed Chair of Trustees at the Progress Educational Trust (PET), the charity that publishes BioNews...
10 December 2018 - by Jen Willows 
The World Health Organisation will establish a panel of experts to study the potential uses of genome editing in humans, and to formulate guidelines for use of the technology...
3 December 2018 - by Rachel Siden 
Authorities in China are moving to suspend the research activities of the scientists who claim to have modified the genomes of twin girls with CRISPR-Cas9...
3 December 2018 - by Dr Andy Greenfield 
I remember where I was when I first heard about the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon, and about the planes that flew into the Twin Towers. Now, I can add to that list where I was when the news broke of the birth of two genome-edited babies.
26 November 2018 - by Shaoni Bhattacharya 
The first births from genome-edited human embryos have been announced by a Chinese researcher amid widespread condemnation, and fears over safety...
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