Chinese Scientist Who Claimed to Edit Baby Genes Resurfaces, Promises Oxford Talk

In this Oct. 10, 2018, photo, Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaks during an interview at h
Mark Schiefelbein/AP

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist jailed after claiming to create the world’s first gene-edited human babies in 2018, announced on Friday he will speak at England’s Oxford University in early 2023.

He was the lead scientist for a team at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen that stunned the world in November 2018 by announcing they had used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to modify the DNA of human children in the womb. He said one of the couples who volunteered for the experiment had given birth to twin baby girls.

According to He, the baby girls were genetically modified to make them highly resistant to HIV, which their father was infected with. Scientists around the world condemned his team for irresponsibly using CRISPR to edit human genes. He attempted to publish papers describing his work, but international scientific journals refused to accept them.

A third allegedly genetically edited child was born to another of the women in He’s trials. None of the three children has been identified to the public, so He’s claims have never been independently verifiable.

The Chinese government was clearly displeased as well, because He disappeared in December 2018, shortly after discussing his work at a conference in Hong Kong.

Chinese officials initially denied He was under arrest, but he eventually resurfaced in custody, and in December 2019 he was sentenced to three years in prison, along with two other members of his team. The three were charged with “illegal medical practice,” a relatively minor offense that was seen as a modicum of leniency compared to the far more serious charges that could have been leveled against them.

Rumors of a possible early release for He were floated by Chinese state media in the spring of 2022, and he was in fact released in April. He announced in early November he had opened an office and non-profit laboratory in Beijing and would be developing affordable gene therapy for rare diseases, naming Duchenne muscular dystrophy as one example.

In a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo this week, He thanked the University of Oxford’s St. Cross College fellow Prof. Eben Kirksey for purportedly inviting him to give a talk about using gene-editing technology in reproductive medicine, and on Friday he said he would accept the invitation.

Eben Kirksey of Deakin University speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, Wednesday, November 28, 2018. (Kin Cheung/AP)

Kirksey said He’s Oxford appearance would explore the stakes as biological science prepares to “remake the facts of life itself,” and whether it is possible to create “ethical and fair” standards for human gene editing.

He also said he participated in a teleconference hosted by the Global Observatory for Genome Editing in May 2022 to discuss his use of CRISPR on human subjects. The Observatory confirmed he attended the conference via Zoom.

“Our purpose was not to find fault, denounce, or embarrass. In keeping with the mission of the Observatory, we aimed rather to step back in a spirit of humility and to reflect, learn, and move forward in more productive and enlightened directions,” the Observatory said.


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