Man Behind Gene-Edited Babies Is Back

He Jiankui aims to study gene therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy in Hong Kong
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 21, 2023 8:53 AM CST
Scientist of Gene-Edited Baby Infamy Eyes a Return
Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaks at a brief press conference in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.   (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

A Chinese scientist who set off an ethical debate five years ago with claims that he made the world’s first genetically edited babies said Tuesday that he hopes to research rare hereditary diseases in Hong Kong, per the AP. He Jiankui shocked the world in 2018 when he announced he had used a tool called CRISPR-cas9 to alter the embryos of twin girls in an attempt to give the babies the ability to resist AIDS. The CRISPR-cas9 tool has been tested elsewhere in adults to treat diseases, but many in the scientific community criticized his work as medically unnecessary and unethical partly because any genetic changes could be passed down to future generations.

Found to have edited the genes of a third baby born to a second woman, he was convicted by a mainland Chinese court in 2019 of practicing medicine without a license and sentenced to three years in prison with a fine of 3 million yuan, or $445,000. Ten months after his release, He announced in Beijing on Tuesday that he has been granted a Hong Kong visa and is in contact with universities, research institutes, and companies in the financial hub. He said he would consider working in Hong Kong if there is an appropriate opportunity, and that he plans to research gene therapy for rare hereditary diseases. "My scientific research will comply with the ethics codes and international consensus on scientific research," he said at a brief news conference.

He invited about six media organizations to the news conference but left after reading a statement for about two minutes. He did not respond to questions as he left. In a later written response, he said he plans to form an advisory committee on ethics to vet his future work and make sure the process is open and transparent. He plans to research Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a genetic disorder that he said often causes people to die of heart and lung failure when they are about 20 years old. No medicine can cure the disease and gene therapy may help, he said. "We hope to use AI tools to evolve the adeno-associated virus capsids to improve the efficiency of gene therapy and largely lower the costs of gene therapy so as to make it affordable for each family," he said. (More He Jiankui stories.)

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