Scientist Behind Gene-Edited Babies Kept Work Shrouded in Secrecy

He Jiankui did not follow conventional path
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 27, 2018 5:17 PM CST
Scientist Behind Gene-Edited Babies Kept Work Shrouded in Secrecy
In this Oct. 9, 2018 photo, a microplate containing embryos that have been injected with Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA is seen in a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province.   (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The Chinese scientist who says he helped make the world's first gene-edited babies veered off a traditional career path, keeping much of his research secret in pursuit of a larger goal—making history. He Jiankui's outsized aspirations began to take shape in 2016, the year after another team of Chinese researchers sparked global debate with the revelation that they had altered the DNA of human embryos in the lab. He soon set his mind on pushing the boundaries of medical ethics even further. The China-born, US-trained scientist once confided to his former Stanford University adviser his interest in gene-edited babies. He told the AP last month that he had been working on the experiment for more than two years—a period in which, by his own account, he concealed information from some medical staff involved in the research, as well as apparently from his own bosses.

He took advantage of the loosely worded and irregularly enforced regulations and generous funding available today in China, in some cases skirting even local protocols and possibly laws. On the eve of an international gene-editing summit in Hong Kong this week, the 34-year-old scientist stunned the world by claiming he had used the powerful CRISPR gene-editing tool to alter the DNA of twin girls born earlier this month. His claim could not be independently confirmed, and it has not been published in a journal, but it drew swift outrage from both researchers and regulators. China's state broadcaster, CCTV, reported Tuesday that He may be investigated by the Ministry of Science and Technology, if the births are confirmed. Meanwhile, the AP has much more on He, who initially followed a common path for scientists of his generation. But his career trajectory did not follow the expected script. (Click for much more on He's fascinating and controversial journey, and the ambiguity of China's laws.)

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