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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.'

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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